How is Your Coffee Grown?

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, October 4, 1996

Have you ever thought about how your coffee is grown? The cup, bag or can of coffee that you buy probably won't say whether it was grown in the shade or in full sun. However, the way coffee is grown has significant impacts not only on the environment and people in the tropics, but also on us and our environment here in the Northeast.

A recent story in Science News magazine tells of research conducted on the ecological differences between the traditional way of growing coffee in the shade and the newer high-yield methods which use full sun. Although this report deals with coffee exclusively, I believe it touches on one of the most important issues relating to our food system's future. Will our food come from complex and diverse ecosystems, or from the one-crop deserts which today's large-scale monocultures create?

Coffee is a perennial, understory shrub native to Africa. In the last 300 years it has been planted widely in the tropics around the world. Coffee plants grow well in the shade of trees. Traditionally, they have been grown in the middle of a complicated, three-story ecosystem. The canopy over the coffee shrubs can consist of up to 40 different types of trees. These may include fruit trees (such as mango and citrus) or even leguminous trees which provide the nitrogen needed by the coffee plants. The trees provide homes for epiphytes, parasites, mosses and lichens. These organisms in turn support insects, amphibians and other animals, including many migratory songbirds which spend the warmer months eating insects in our region's forests and fields. Other bushes are grown along with the coffee and sometimes an annual crop is grown underneath. The leaves, manure and other biodegradable debris from all this life add nutrients to the soil and keep the ground covered and moist. This prevents erosion and encourages useful soil organisms.

Ants, spiders, and birds help to control damaging insects. Apparently these shade coffee plantations are home to a diversity of organisms nearly equal to the forest itself.

Shade farms, however, are disappearing from the tropics as fast as the traditional small dairy farms are from this region. Most growers in the tropics have converted to raising coffee bushes in full sun with no other plants around. This was tried initially as a way to avoid a rust disease which occurs when coffee is grown in the moist shade of trees. Although the rust really wasn't much of a problem on the shade farms, the higher yields produced on sunny plantations have encouraged more and more farmers to switch to that method. This conversion has occurred in spite of the fact that the costs for growing coffee in the full sun are nearly 20c higher per pound. Many more insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers must be used to compensate for the lost benefits of an intact, diverse ecosystem.

But, don't worry! The cost of growing the coffee beans is only a small part of the price we pay for our coffee. Differences in input costs or productivity of the farming method will have little effect on what we pay. Any economic advantages will be in higher incomes for the biggest growers, or more likely, higher profits for the few large corporations which control most of the flow of coffee from the tropics to the restaurants and supermarkets where we buy it.

The negative effects of chemical-use and degraded ecosystems are felt by those living nearby, of course. The women and children who pick coffee beans for pennies a day will be exposed to higher pesticide levels as they work. For us, there will likely be fewer songbirds in our environment, too, and more pesticide-contamination in our coffee. The toxic wastes from making the pesticides may be buried in Connecticut.

Almost half of the coffee production in northern Latin America, from Mexico to Columbia, has been switched over to monocultures in full sun. Almost all of the farms in Brazil, the world's leading coffee producer, have been converted.

For those of us who haven't yet been able to give up this addictive stimulant, buying certified-organically-grown or shade-grown coffee will help to fight this growing abuse of tropical ecosystems.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth

This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.