Monday, June 28, 2010

The Lazy Twenty-Something's Guide to Sustainable Living - On Coffee

Ah, coffee. Without that delightfully bitter black kiss in the morning I fail to become a fully functional human being. Maybe it's an addiction. Maybe I once took a job as a barista for the endless supply of free drip coffee. Maybe when I consider remaining childless, a 9 month stretch without it weighs heavily in the argument. Whatever. I love it and I'm not going to stop drinking it for anything short of bleeding ulcers or pregnancy.

That said, the environmental (and social) impacts of coffee growth can be pretty horrific, and I can't really consider myself an environmentally conscious person without examining how drinking coffee affects the rest of the world. After all, I may be lazy, but I try not to be unethical. First, a brief note about choosing your battles in terms of green living, that I will try to expand coherently in another post. I am not a subsistence farmer who shuns all technology. You probably aren't either. We do things all the time that are less than ideal for the environment. We also make small compromises every day that are not really good for the environment, but just shift the pressure from one area to another. At this very moment I am typing this and listening to Sen. Lindsay Graham be slightly condescending to Elena Kagan on a computer. So: 1 machine running vs 2 (computer and tv). Rather than typing and distributing this on paper, it will be uploaded to a blog, so trees saved, but at the cost of the mining and manufacture of the laptops, desktops, and smart phones from which you all are reading and from which I am typing. I'm not in a hurry to move into a yurt and grow all my own food (lazy), but I'll buy sustainably grown food. I'm not in a hurry to give up coffee, but I try to buy coffee that lines up with my environmental and social views. So don't get discouraged and give up on the whole green thing because your carbon footprint can't squeeze behind the decimal. Mine doesn't, either. But I'm working on it.

Conventional wisdom says that coffee is the second only to oil as the most valuable traded commodity. While this might not actually be true, it's still a valuable traded commodity and plays an important role in the economy of many developing nations. There are several ways to buy coffee that have varying impacts on the farmers growing the coffee and make various statements about trade issues. This isn't that kind of blog, though, so I'm going to bite my tongue and stick with what I know: environmental impacts.

Coffee likes to grow in pretty specific conditions. Hawaii is the only state in the Union that grows it for export, in fact, because it is the only state that has the ideal high-elevation, dryish climate within a tropical environment that contributes to a constant average temperature of about 70 degrees. Coffee plants actually grow well in hotter, wetter lower elevations, because the warmer temperatures encourage the plants to fruit essentially all year. However, as any good coffee snob will tell you, this quantity over quality reproductive strategy produces beans with inferior taste. You can then counter that coffee snob's point by reminding them that the body and crema (tan foam on top, not milk) of the best espressos are achieved by a mixture of these inferior beans with the beans from the more highly regarded growing conditions. Most commercial coffee is from the warmer, wetter environment that encourages the production of more beans. Most of the higher-end coffee comes from the cooler, dryer, higher elevation, where, combined with relatively nutrient-poor soils, these conditions cause the fruit to grow more slowly, developing their flavors longer to produce some truly awesome coffee.

There are a few different strategies for growing coffee, each of which have varying impacts on the environment. As with most plants, more sun, more water, and more nutrients give higher yields. Conventional coffee farms clear-cut rain forest, irrigate diligently (New Scientist estimates that it takes up to 140L of water to produce 1 cup of coffee. This is more or less ok for Colombia, maybe not so much for Ethiopia), and fertilize their soils to achieve high yields. They run into the same problems that most conventional monocultures do. Just like sugar cane and corn farming in the rainforest, clear cutting and conventional fertilizers are bad for biodiversity and overall ecosystem health. They increase erosion, destroy habitat, and pollute surrounding soil and water with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Buying sun-grown coffee contributes to the destruction of the tropical rainforest in South America and water shortages in Ethiopia.

Contrasted with conventional methods is the traditional farming method of shade-grown coffee. There are a few different levels of shade-grown coffee. Reduced shade uses a single species of tree for shade, and typically provides between 10 and 30% cover for the coffee plants. While this is better than full sun farms, they still aren't great. Commercial polyculture deliberately introduces a few shade species that also are beneficial to soil chemistry and typically provides 30 - 60% shade cover for the coffee plants. Traditional polyculture introduces even more species of shade plants, and provides 60 - 90% shade cover. Rustic shade farms are basically coffee plants integrated into an existing forest, without removal of the native plants. These generally provide more than 70% shade, sometimes 100% shade. The more shade and plant diversity integrated into the farm, the fewer pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers are generally required. Leaf drop from the shade trees and soil-chemistry-altering properties of the non-coffee plants reduce the need for soil enrichment, and generally allow for other food or cash crops to be grown along side the coffee. More and more types of plants reduce or eliminate appreciable soil erosion. The more shade cover and plant diversity in the area, the better the farms are for birds, insects, and other animals that lose habitat to conventional farming.

So how do you know what you're drinking? While you generally can't tell whether coffee was grown in commercial polyculture or traditional polyculture, some are identified broadly as shade-grown, but that is not a regulated term. There are a few organizations that rate or put their seal of approval on certain coffees for sustainable farming practices, including shade cover. The Rainforest Alliance and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center both certify coffee that they feel meet their standards. There is coffee that is certified organic, a regulated term in the US. Unfortunately there were no low water use certifications that I could find, so I'm pretty sure that's just a necessary evil of coffee. You can find coffee that meets some pretty stringent ecological requirements. This is obviously not an exhaustive list. This might be.

How to make up for the extra money spent on environmentally friendly beans (not cheap)? Easy: make coffee at home (surprisingly lazy-friendly). Even if I spent $15/lb of coffee every week (I don't), I'd still be ahead of the game. Taking just the summer (when iced coffee reigns supreme) and just Gimme (because no one else here cold-brews their iced coffee), I'd still pay more than double to buy it in the shop. 16oz of iced coffee costs $2.25 at Gimme. My morning cup, cold-brewed from home, is 24 oz. That would cost about $3.37. Multiply that by 7 mornings in your typical week, and I'd be spending $23.59 if I didn't make it myself. Considering the only equipment you need for this is a mason jar and, if you're feeling industrious, filtered water, you can be buying some pretty expensive shade grown coffee and still saving money. In reality, a pound bag of beans will last me a bit over two weeks if I'm drinking around 24 oz a day. Sustainably produced, locally roasted coffee will run you $12 - $17/lb. If you aren't so picky about local roasters, you can get some great deals online and in grocery stores that meet the same environmental standards of production.

If coffee is one of your vices, consider paying attention to the kinds of beans you buy. I would also encourage you to look into some of the various fair trade certifications for coffee, but like I said, it's not that kind of blog.

1 comment:

jekin said...

Lazy habits can also help us in green living. Do not bother to turn off lights, taps, etc. Use automated products such as automatic light turn off system, automatic taps, etc.