Coffee is a vital piece of the world’s agricultural puzzle. Coffee is popular widely and deeply. So much of the world’s population drinks it daily that coffee produced by environmentally conscious methods should take priority. Also, coffee grows in tropical places where the health of the forests helps determine the health of the planet. Tropical forests are key in fighting climate change. Environmentally responsible and ethical coffee farming matters.
Dominating as a Staple Worldwide
Sustainability in farming of the world’s second most popular beverage impacts the planet in a big way. While major regions of the world have different food staples, coffee beans and grounds are ubiquitously popular. Looking at different grains and starches preferred worldwide shows how widespread coffee drinking is. Wheat dominates in Europe, the US and Canada. Asia prefers rice. Mexico and Central America revere corn but also eat a lot of rice and beans. Soy is a now-ubiquitous bean crafted into many forms worldwide because it’s cheap. However, vegetables vary from place to place.
Meanwhile, coffee has been popular in many parts of the world for decades on end. Demand is only growing because more people like coffee and they start younger. Nevertheless, coffee farming is becoming increasingly challenging. Threats to Arabica growth have caused farmers to consider cultivating other species like liberica and robusta. Some farmers have been forced to switch to other crops to protect their livelihood.
Sustainability in coffee farming should also be a priority because it takes place in rich ecosystems. Many ecosystems are dense with plant and animal life. However, equatorial forests are important for the overall health of the planet. While rainforests like the Amazon predominate in discussions about the climate, many types of forests lie along the equator. In fact, the best-tasting coffee grows at higher elevations, where the plant and animal life isn’t like the stereotypical “rainforests” we often picture. The faster drainage of rainwater in the mountains leads to denser coffee beans.
Coffee and Carbon Emissions
Coffee and its surrounding ecosystem play a surprisingly key role in discussions of carbon emissions. Looking at the global picture, while northern forests absorb less carbon, all eyes are on tropical forests. According to a study by NASA, “tropical forests absorb 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide out of a total global absorption of 2.5 billion.” Boreal forests like those in Canada and Russia take in less and less carbon. Equatorial forests are keeping us afloat in the face of carbon emissions. They can do so for a few decades as we fight climate change, but only if we protect them.
Waterflow and Plant Isolation Risks
Irresponsible coffee farming can lead to soil erosion and contamination of waterways. That’s because coffee grows in hilly and mountainous areas. In the face of increasingly erratic weather patterns and weather disasters like storms and droughts, sustainable farming matters. With droughts alternating with tropical storms dumping rain at once, waterways become overwhelmed. Soil erosion can disrupt plant life. Afterward, the creatures feeding on plants and insects suffer. For example, birds living in canopies where coffee trees naturally grow tall feed on insects. This reduces the need for pesticides that protect coffee fruit. When coffee trees are separated from the other plants in their normal ecosystem and trimmed too short for the convenience of farmers, everyone suffers. Using artificial fruit protectants like pesticides and fungicides harms both the surrounding wildlife and coffee drinkers near and far.
Coffee May Help with Regrowth
Coffee can even help regrow forests on land that was previously developed or harmed naturally. In the face of the destruction of the Amazon, this could be key. Fires in the Amazon have been devastating in recent years. Coffee may help in restoration. In particular, the pulp of the coffee fruit was used on the land to help forests grow back. “A forest on caffeine?” the article humorously proposes.
Coffee Farming Verified as Sustainable
Coffee lovers in far-off countries should be concerned whether the coffee they choose was grown sustainably. That’s true for their own health and the health of the planet. However, much distance separates coffee drinkers outside of the coffee belt from these farms. How can consumers ensure their coffee wasn’t grown via dangerous shortcuts?
While a premium high-altitude coffee may taste great, unless you know the exact origins, it may contain dangerous pesticides. Considering that many coffee bags and boxes don’t detail the coffee’s origins and treatment, this is a vital question. As we see with labeling for “hormone-free,” “non-GMO” and “free-range,” some companies and farms try to make foods seem healthier. They slap similar phrases on food products. For example, a food may not be USDA-verified organic, however, the label reads: “grown pesticide free.”
Luckily, organizations that ratify the growing and processing techniques provide consumers with quick insight into a food’s background. Like the USDA provides (some level of) legitimacy for organic food in the US, there are international organizations that verify a certain level of sustainability. One such organization is the Rainforest Alliance. This international alliance judges organizations based on a standard set of criteria.
Rainforest Alliance Certification
The Rainforest Alliance is a non-profit dedicated to sustainability. It provides agricultural training and certification in 60 countries. It works to condone and spread sustainable farming practices and other safe interactions with ecosystems. The Rainforest Alliance developed standard criteria against which independent auditors can judge a farm. Three pillars of sustainability help it gauge farms. These include economic, social and environmental standards.
These standards matter for coffee-growing countries. In the past, clearing land and exploitative farming damaged the soil and populations of these countries, which are generally less developed. The labor arrangements in farming in some countries, like Honduras, were so extractive they led the whole country to be nicknamed a “banana republic.” United Fruit once exerted an imperial-like control over banana production. For that reason, when the profits and proceeds from sales of, for example, the best coffee from Honduras improve the lives of many Hondurans, it’s a just turning of the tide.
Rainforest Alliance Criteria
Ecology – The Rainforest Alliance verifies that farms treat the environment well. Special emphasis is placed on forest ecosystems. A farm must be healthily embedded in its ecosystem without causing undue harm. This breaks down further into ensuring farms manage their impact on the soil and waterways.
Climate – Equatorial countries that grow coffee frequently suffer more from global warming than those further from the equator. Flooding, devastating storms and droughts can wreak havoc. The Rainforest Alliance ensures its certified countries are taking proactive steps to deal with flooding and erosion.
Human Rights – The Rainforest Alliance considers human rights for people living in rural areas. With labor standards that avoid forced labor, child labor and unfair work situations, it helps protect vulnerable people. By taking into account the needs of indigenous communities, women and children, the Rainforest Alliance helps spread equity.
The polar opposite of an organization that exploits ecosystems and people while further damaging the climate is one that fosters several types of good. A non-profit that grows, processes and ships Honduran coffee to North America, Subida Coffee Co. shines among independent premium coffee sellers. Subida’s medium and dark-roasted coffees are rich and delicious! The proceeds of Subida Coffee Co.’s sales help finance the education of teenage boys who attend boarding school on the site where the coffee grows.