How Do You Take Your Organic Coffee?

Organic, fair trade coffee is an investment in the environment that needs years to grow.

THE GIST

Carbon-free coffee is a relatively new addition to the line-up of ethical coffee choices.

Even an organic farm can contaminate waterways if the runoff from coffee de-pulping operations isn't contained.

The coffee industry, from the farm to the mug, is percolating with change.

While prices remain high, helping farmers, according to Judith Ganes-Chase, President of J. Ganes Consulting, a commodities advising company, demand is actually slowing. But not so for organic and fair trade coffee. Interest in that is growing, which holds implications for the environment.

Organic, shade-grown, fair trade, and carbon-free beans can reduce some of the negative aspects of coffee farming, such as deforestation and water contamination. But these coffees are still a small segment of the market.

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And while high prices have reduced the drive for farmers to get organic certified, the benefits of blending coffee into the local ecosystem go beyond the organic beans' cash value.

In its African homeland, coffee is an understory plant and tends to burn in full sun. Shade-grown coffee farming integrates coffee into a forest ecosystem, a technique known as agroforestry. As a variety of trees grow over the shorter coffee bushes, the coffee farm becomes wildlife habitat. Farmers harvest secondary crops by planting fruit and nut trees. Nitrogen-fixing trees help infuse the soil with a vital nutrient and thereby provide free organic fertilizer.

Shade-grown coffee can be raised completely organically. Organic coffee production eliminates the pesticides and other agricultural chemicals that can poison workers and watersheds. But even an organic farm can contaminate waterways if the runoff from coffee de-pulping operations isn't contained.

It takes farmers 3 years to get their farm certified organic, in which time they need to learn to fight bean-boring beetles, such as Hypothenemus hampei, with traps instead of pesticides, and fertilize with compost and manure instead of synthetic fertilizers.

"Generally, it takes farming organizations between two to 10 months to become Fair Trade Certified," said Mary Jo Cook, Chief Impact Officer at Fair Trade USA, an organization which certifies the ecological and egalitarian credentials of farmers, distributors, and other businesses.

Fair trade certification also requires producers to monitor their environmental impact and strike a balance between profits and the planet, said Cook.

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Once the coffee has been harvested and processed for export, even if it is organic and fairly traded, it has yet another environmental impact. Transporting a bulky sack of coffee beans from its tropical home to the caffeine addicted North takes energy. Most of that energy comes from fossil fuels and results in greenhouse gas pollution.

Carbon-free coffee is a relatively new addition to the line-up of ethical coffee choices.

"We have been CarbonFree Certified since 2008 and were the first coffee roaster in the country to obtain this certification," said Kelsey Marshall of Grounds For Change, a purveyor of Earth and worker friendly coffees.

Grounds for Change uses Carbonfund.org's reforestation program to balance the greenhouse gas produced during the production and distribution of coffee.

Every morning, millions start their days with a coffee. The choice of bean for the brew can make the morning joe an environmentally and socially responsible beverage or contribute to ecosystem destruction and the cycle of poverty.

"The more that customers become aware of these issues and certifications, the more they are inclined to vote with their dollar," said Marshall.

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