Coffee with a Conscience: Shade-grown coffee


The latest coffee trend is coffee for the birds

brown bird on tree stem

Coffee trends toward guilt-free blends

Fair trade, sustainable, organic. Now, coffee for the birds? Recent trends in single-origin coffees allows us to enjoy an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe after dinner, a Costa Rican French Roast for breakfast. We can rest easy that either cup may be certified “Fair Trade” or Organic.

The latest trend in coffee with a conscience is shade-grown coffee

Coffee: that affordable luxury. A hot steamy cup of Joe is a welcome break or the pick me up that gets us through the afternoon. Coffee has grown from a simple commodity, blended product of uniform character, to a single-origin, highly differentiated gourmet beverage.

Still, do you really know what’s in your cup? Pesticides? Deforestation? Water pollution? Environmental disaster?

Coffee terroir, single origin coffees, and micro-roasters

Like wine grapes, coffee beans express the terroir of their origin. The climate, the soil, the altitude, all these things affect the coffee’s ultimate flavor. This is why the same bean, Arabica, grown in Kenya produces a different coffee from the one grown in Columbia. Like a cabernet sauvignon grape grown in Napa Valley versus one grown in France will produce a different wine.

Small batch coffees versus agricultural commodity

Coffee is one of the top imports into the US, behind petroleum. The coffee trade creates global value for those involved in its production, from bean to cup. Generally, the closer to the soil, the less money a coffee worker makes. Profits tend to run in direct correlation to distance from the grower. Micro roasters can and do monitor all aspects of the grower-roaster relationship for quality control and to encourage sustainable farming and fair pricing unavailable in the big cartel model.

Fair trade coffee grows in popularity

Fair trade coffee producers seek to certify non-exploitive practices. Many micro-roasters establish direct buying relationships with small growers. This cuts out the cartels that inflate their own profits and drive down prices the farmers get. The direct/fair trade practice also gives roasters the ability to educate small family farms about more environmentally sound growing practices. Investment in the long-term survival of family farms are made directly in funds or in-kind services to train and support the transition to organics, for example.

Shade-grown coffee, the next frontier

The leading micro-roasters are often building their business on organic and fair trade products. Many also have begun to talk about sustainable agriculture, which takes even more into account. For example, the use of pesticides and fertilizers is discouraged. Water and soil conservation is encouraged. Healthier local ecosystems is a broader mandate than simply “organic”.

The recent disappearance of large segments of migratory bird populations have caused scientists with the Smithsonian and other organizations to examine possible causes. Coffee has traditionally been grown in shaded ecosystems that benefit both the coffee plants and the birds and mammals and other forest plants in that system.

With the push for greater profits, more yield per hectare of land, more farmers have been forced to move to sun grown coffee, stripping away the other plants, necessitating the use of herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to increase yield. “…deforestation, pesticide pollution, habitat destruction, and soil and water degradation are the side effects of these practices.” Smithsonian/National Zoo Conservation and Science Presentation.

To enjoy the most guilt-free cup of coffee, look for organic, fair trade and shade-grown. At least seek a micro-roaster who will be happy to talk with you about these issues and how they see them. It’s a good conversation to have over a cup o

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