It's difficult for me to read some of the well-meaning texts written about coffee by those with other agendas: basically, I agree with their motivations behind their writings! But in fact the articles rely on a combination of poor information and selective quotes to make their case to a sympathetic readership who is looking to confirm their suspicions, more than to learn the intricacies of the situation. I thought I would write some comments (in blue) to accompany these well-written but poorly informed article from The Green Guide -Tom.

Coffee: The Grounds for Organic by Mindy Pennybacker

It's time we woke up to our coffee. Whether our choice is Antigua, Sumatra, or standard "joe," our daily cup packs an impact far beyond its immediate, stimulating effect on us. With $4 billion in annual U.S. retail sales, coffee is a big business that affects human lives and ecosystems at the farming source. Our coffee's complexity derives not only from its flavor but from where and how it was grown: in shade or in full sun, organically or with chemicals. (This last statement makes no sense, playing on the word complexity to mean the intrinsic flavors of coffee, and the social-environmental aspects from which it comes. In fact, the options "shade or full sun" and "organic or chemical" already grossly oversimplify the conditions in which coffee is grown. So instead of drawing out the complexities of the issues surrounding coffee, the debate is already being circumscribed to a narrow and simple range of questions with obvious answers: shade-grown and organic-duh! )

The Perils of Technification

"Coffee drinkers in the U.S. and other developed countries should be concerned about the trend towards growing methods with high pesticide and fertilizer inputs. This destroys tropical forests and bio diversity, and creates serious water and other pollution problems in developing countries," says Justin Ward, senior policy specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which this year will be publishing a report on coffee growth, public health and the environment with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The trend Ward refers to is known as "technification," in which forests are cleared to grow coffee in open-sun monoculture, necessitating heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. On a traditional farm, coffee trees are planted beneath a forest canopy. In addition to coffee, such small farms cultivate diverse crops that can include cacao, fruit trees, avocados and trees for firewood. The canopy above varies throughout coffee-growing regions, from indigenous rainforest to mixed forest. The trees fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil, obviating the need for nitrogen-based fertilizers. Weeds tend to be less prevalent in shaded plantations, and are controlled with machetes rather than herbicides. Leaf litter, accumulating beneath the trees, is home to insects that devour nematodes--pests that bore into coffee beans. Thus, toxic nematicides are not required on shade plantations. (This paragraph is very misleading, and I am in fact and NRDC member! Quality coffee comes from quality agronomic practices and that includes combinations of nitrogen-based fertilizing (by hand, mind you, not indiscriminately) and machete-weeding. Pesticides are not widely used on farms with Specialty grade coffee - problem trees are removed and burned. Runoff from a coffee farm (even the natural "miel water" from a wet-mill) can cause problems which have widely been addressed by holding ponds and new milling methods. But fertilizer run-off from a farm would be nothing compared to that of a golf course in the U.S. The most technified coffees are in Brazil where coffee can be machine-picked, and in large farms in Hawaii. Brazil coffee regions were never forested, but rather they were grasslands with small bush and brush. Most non-organic quality coffee uses shade trees in some respect. Fertilizers and other chemicals are expensive! They represent a huge cost, and in a market that has historically low prices (and really in any market) farmers prefer to avoid this expense. Most coffee is indeed traditionally farmed. Coffee is probably one of the least technified crops in the world, and will remain so - you cannot technify a crop easily when it is largely planted on mountainous slopes at dramatic inclines that approach 60 degrees vertical! Lastly, in Peru you have forest being stripped to produce new organic coffee farms because they can avoid the 3 year period of transition from an existing farm to organic. The forest is already organic! Most coffee farms are indeed small farms -the average farm in Colombia is well under 1 acre.)

"Traditional, shade-grown organic production methods are beneficial to the local community's health," Ward says. In addition, as rainforests disappear at the rate of 17 million hectares per year, shaded coffee farms are becoming increasingly critical habitats for migratory songbirds, according to Dr. Russell Greenberg, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. (Somewhat true, but it is entirely possible for a traditional shade grown farm to completely pollute the water with bad milling practices, or pollute the air with wood or even diesel burning guardiolas (dryers.)) In terms of a diminishing rain forest, NOBODY is cutting down forests and planting coffee, except in the case of Peru Organic. In Guatemala you will see deforestation by peasants stripping the forest for firewood. You will see sustenance crops like corn being planted, but not cash crops like coffee for export. Who would plant coffee in this market: the problem is that coffee farms are being abandoned at a remarkable rate, especially in Guatemala and Mexico)

Dr. Greenberg has conducted studies of bird populations in both shade and sun-grown coffee plantations. In Chiapas, Mexico, in 1994, he found over 140 species of birds living in the forests shading traditional farms, compared with full-sun fields, which housed as few as five or six species. In 1995, in Guatemala, Dr. Greenberg found that "the number of species in shade-grown coffee plantations is exceeded only by the diversity in undisturbed rainforest." (These are ridiculous numbers: 140 down to 5. If you have ever traveled in coffee lands, you too would find this very difficult to believe.)

Technified coffee production threatens human health, as well. According to European Chemical News, Ciba has recalled the insecticide Miral 500 CS, an organophosphate nematocide sprayed on banana and coffee plantations in 16 countries, following the deaths of two agricultural workers, including a worker on a Colombia coffee plantation. The farm workers had bronchial reactions consistent with organophosphate poisoning. Three other workers also reportedly became ill. Many pesticides commonly used in Latin American and other developing countries are suspected carcinogens and banned in the U.S. -- including DDT and benzene hexachloride (BHC). In Costa Rica, synthetic fertilizers have caused nitrate contamination of drinking water aquifers. "I would think that anybody who cares anything about the health of consumers and the planet cares about the health of workers who are raising what they're buying," says Corby Kummer, author of The Joy of Coffee (Chapters Publishing, 1995). Kummer notes that child labor is all too common on coffee farms. (It's hard to know how to respond to specific reports_ I know bananas are not grown commercially with coffee on any farm I have ever seen- perhaps this happens for commodity grade low grown coffees. I could see more humid flatland agriculture having trouble with fungus. But I am sure it would be an issue with Bananas (a true agribusiness) and not coffee. Do they have organic, fair-trade, shade grown bananas - why not? With coffee the only way overuse of these chemicals is happening is if USAID is paying for them - coffee farmers cannot afford to overuse chemicals, nor does a small farm really need too. The irony is that so much of what you eat in the US has been exposed in a much more direct way to subsidized fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide contact - and these are consumables that don't go through a wet mill, a dry mill, a roaster, and brewing. These are things like lettuce and tomatoes that you eat as it grows in the field. I guess its easier to look at a distant problem than at the one down the block.. I have seen in my travels 2 farms that used herbicides for weed control - and these were just something that other farmers pointed out as we drove by as a bad example. I have seen hundreds that use machete. Everyone uses machete. Inferring that DDT is used is just an alarmist tactic. Nitrate contamination! Look at what we put on our American lawns and goes into our lagoons and rivers. We are the ones that overuse Nitrates! Now the child labor thing is really the kicker - families pick coffee together. There is a national holiday period in the Americas to allow for this. That is how it is done, that is culture. A coffee farm is not a factory, and picking coffee as a family is no worse than when my whole family had to clear brush and trim our trees together).

At the consumer end, while the FDA has acknowledged multiple pesticide residues on imported green (unprocessed) beans, it also found that the chemicals are burned off during the roasting process. But in 1983, in the only independent study to date, NRDC sent coffee samples to laboratories that conducted more precise measurements than the FDA. One sample from Brazil, even after roasting, retained original levels of DDD (the toxic metabolyte of DDT) as when green, the report, Harvest of Unknowns, found. Author Shelley A. Hearne notes that the FDA's worst-case scenario had projected no more than ten percent of original levels after roasting, an assumption upon which it concluded there was no hazard to the consumer. (So there is this one report poetically called "Harvest of Unknowns" that found residues from one sample. I agree that Brazil might be the one place in the world where coffee is treated as all crops are here in the US: sprayed from the air, indiscriminately fertilized, watered via irrigation. This happens nowhere else in the specialty coffee universe, and I seriously doubt herbicides are used in Brazil except among low grade, low grown coffee. The USDA and FDA inspect coffee importation constantly, not just on one occasion like "Harvest of Unknowns").

Investing in Sustainable Communities

Until recently, traditional coffee farming in countries such as Peru, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico was kept alive as much by poverty as by choice, Dr. Greenberg says. "A lot of coffee is grown on indigenous lands. In Mexico, you mostly have family farms, 90 percent of them on five hectares or less," he notes, explaining that, with technification, poor farms are likely to disappear or be combined by agribusiness into large ones. The change began in the 1970s with the development of a high-yield coffee tree that flourished in full sunlight (and required chemical protection from disease). A number of organic coffee companies and nonprofit organizations are working to reverse this trend by investing in local communities. (This is untrue. Coffee farms are being untended, abandoned, but there is not an agribusiness out there that would be buying up anything in coffee - it makes no sense, especially in Mexico!)

(The following section is true, and these are fine companies filling a market niche for those who want to have political impact)

Coffee Kids, a nonprofit organization based in Providence, Rhode Island, is dedicated to improving the lives of children in coffee-growing regions. "Last year, with Coffee Kids, we built two schools in Mexico for coffee workers, and this year we're sponsoring a health action network for women in Guatemala," says Paul Barnett of Allegro Coffee Company in Boulder, Colorado. Also through Coffee Kids, Frontier Coffee is funding a village women's bank in Jalapa, Mexico.

Many companies buy organically-grown beans from farmers' cooperatives that pay their members a higher price than they could get on their own (world prices are currently at a low). Some growers are expanding into biodynamic agriculture, which considers the farm as a whole, self-contained organism, uses herbal composts and plants according to the Zodiac and cycles of the moon. Other companies contribute to organizations that support sustainable agriculture.

De-Chemicalizing Decaf

The most common method of removing caffeine from beans is by the solvent methylene chloride. Despite some evidence of carcinogenic effects, the FDA says there's no health risk to drinkers, as beans are usually steamed clean. Recently, however, the solvent was banned by the European Community because its evaporation in processing may be harming the ozone layer. Methylene chloride remains in prevalent use in the U.S.

The two decaffeinization processes used by organic coffee companies are Swiss Water Process and the new CO2 method. Beans are soaked in either water or CO2 to dissolve caffeine.

(Ethyl Acetate decafs are popular too, a non-nefarious chemical. SWPs and many CO2s have problems with cup quality and longevity. We use the WP process performed in Mexico that has excellent cup results and is non-chemical. MC Decaf has good to fair cup quality and is a nasty solvent. It also breaks down completely at room temperature, let alone roast temperature.)

Buying Organic Coffees

Be careful to look for the words "certified organic" on the package. A caveat: the label "shade-grown" on coffee can be misleading. "A lot of shade coffee is technified mono culture, heavily pruned, with a branch structure that doesn't support birds. Some shade coffees do use chemicals," Dr. Greenberg warns. See The Green Guide's Product Report on coffee for a list of brands that are certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) or other certifying agencies.

Coffee is a seasonal crop, so taste varies a lot, as with wine. In addition, the knowledge that our coffee has not harmed health or the environment should make it taste all the better. Because they buy directly from growers, rather than through middlemen, many organic coffee companies price their coffees competitively with other specialty, or gourmet, brands. Next time you drop by a coffee bar, why not say you'll take yours organic -- if they don't have it, tell them why they should and where they can get it -- or have us send them this issue of The Green Guide.

(This is mostly a sales pitch to send consumers to the approved list of buyers. Organic coffees are bought through brokers just as much as other coffees. There's no certification that an organic farm has paid workers well, or that the coffee has any cup quality by its being certified organic. Organic doesn't mean the workers picked only ripe cherry, that it was hand prepared to cull out unripes and overripes, that the coffee was milled right, and shipped with care.

The one thing you can do that would make a bonafide, BIG difference if you care about these issues is simple: don't buy instant coffee, don't buy preground roasted coffee, don't buy coffee from Kraft, Sara Lee, Nestle, Proctor & Gamble or one of their subsidiary brands - and you would be surprised what these brands are! Buy the best quality farm-specific coffee you can. It costs pennies more per cup , and the chances you are supporting a conscientious farm that perhaps uses hand-applied nitrogen fertilizer and does everything else right is extremely high. Buy it from a roaster who supplies lots of information about the farm, because lots of coffees have fancy names tagged on and its unclear what they really are...)

Okay - in refuting the article I have gone too far in criticizing it. It makes some valid points about the benefits of traditional coffee farming. But it applies a tiny bit of knowledge toward priming consumers to accept a dogma about good vs evil in the coffee lands. Perhaps they are an easy target because they are distant. Perhaps its easy to oversimplify because we consumers don't actually know anything about picking coffee, about the culture it comes from, the history of coffee, what it is like to live around it. We don't have coffee trees, we don't have friend who is a farmer or worker. There are a lot of problems in coffee, with the market system, with the low prices. But do totalizing ideologies that attempt to express it all in less than 2000 words do anything to help? If there was an accurate treatise on coffee, lets say 500 pages, would anyone care enough to read it? How can an author know so little and be so sure of the "right" thing to do when I know oodles, have traveled much, know many in the trade, have been in coffee for a long time, and still feel like every day that I am ignorant about coffee. Why does the simple "branding" of coffee as fair trade and organic bug me? Why does it seem not to get at the heart of the issues, and fail to provide a solution to anyone but a handful of farmers. If US consumers had to research everything they bought, would they have to quit their day jobs? Why is coffee such an easy target, when there are so many glaring problems with our own agricultural practices, and they have a HUGE direct affect on health and the environment in an real, immediate and local way? Why do we have to export our ideologies and tell other people what is right, fair and just. Is Guatemala and Costa Ricas minimum wage system and work regulations enough? Should we impose these things upon others as we shop, seeing ourselves as their protectorates and saviors as we do so? Is this the old colonial patriarchy? I don't know the answers but I find the questions to be annoying, and I wish I did. Perhaps that's why I don't like simplified pablum that makes everything so clear: it seems eerily dangerous...)


If you want to argue any points or make corrections, please contact me

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