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Environment

Do you know where your coffee comes from?

For some of us, having a case of the Mondays is a daily occurrence, one that can only be solved with a strong, delicious, aromatic cup of coffee. 

But do you know where your coffee came from? Who made it, and how it was produced?  

Coffee is the second most tradable commodity in the world, with over 100 million growers behind its production. How fortunate that millions of growers can benefit from this lucrative market, you might think. Sadly, that’s far from the case. In reality, most coffee growers only make 10% of what it eventually sells for, and when coffee faces price cutting and reductions, third world coffee farmers pay the price.

Traditionally, coffee is grown the way it occurs naturally- under the shade, with plants being placed between local forest trees. Although shade grown coffee is better for the environment, safer for the farmers, and possibly superior in taste, many large manufacturers have turned to sun grown coffee instead.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Always trying to get the most bang for their buck, large coffee manufacturers often grow their coffee in the sun because it generates a higher yield. But sun grown coffee comes at a cost. In order to create the fields in which it grows forests are cleared causing an array of environmental problems, such as loss of wildlife and biodiversity, and the need for pesticides. Furthermore, according to the Environmental Defense Fund deforestation by “cutting and burning trees adds more global warming pollution to the atmosphere than all the cars and trucks in the world, about 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions”. And because sun grown coffee depletes the soil of its nutrients, farmers are forced to move on to new patches of land when it is no longer usable, further exacerbating the situation.

As for those pesky pesticides...Unlike shade grown coffee that requires little to no use of toxic chemicals since the natural surrounding vegetation reduces exposure to pests, sun grown coffee relies on pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for protection. These chemicals inevitably are released into the water supply, harming marine life and damaging the water quality for the workers and residents who live nearby. Without access to clean water their health is compromised, making it impossible to lift themselves out of poverty.

Photo: Bio-Innovate-ILRI/Albert Mwangi)

The exposure to handling these toxic substances also puts farmers in harm’s way. According to the World Resources Institute, “inadequate safety and hygiene practices are the norm” in developing countries where pesticides are used. In fact, the United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that many farmers working with these toxic substances do not wear protective clothing due to discomfort from the heat and humidity,  and their employers aren’t interested in enforcing this precaution. 

Still not ready to ditch your morning cup? Fortunately for you there are several things we can do to limit our coffee’s carbon footprint and ensure farmers are not take advantage of.

1) Look for Fair Trade coffee. This label guarantees farmers fair wages and better living conditions since farmers are able to sell directly to importers and skip the middle men.

2) When possible choose “shade grown” coffee over “sun grown”.

3) Look for coffee that is “organic certified”. Organic coffee doesn't allow the use of chemicals which is better for the environment, safer for farmers, and safer for you.

As consumers we have the opportunity to vote with our money. Let’s harness that power and use it to transform the coffee industry by supporting responsible coffee companies.

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Christina Nuñez