6 Reasons to Choose Organic, Shade-Grown, Fair Trade Coffee – By doing so, you’re reducing exposure to pesticides and supporting small farmers. By Hannah Bewsey and Ronnie Cummins October 6, 2014
If your day hasn’t really begun until that first sip of coffee, you’re not alone. According to the National Coffee Association, more than 80 percent of U.S. adults drink coffee on a regular basis.
But consumers are getting wiser—and choosier—about which coffee brands they buy. A recent trend in ethical consumerism has seen coffee-lovers voting with their dollars. And what they’re voting for are organic, shade-grown and fair trade beans—for a number of reasons, including better taste and a higher nutritional profile, in addition to environmental and fair trade concerns.
What are conscientious consumers not buying? Coffee grown on corporate-owned sun plantations, produced with a heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and little regard for the health and welfare of plantation workers and small, sustainable farmers.
The evolution of coffee growing
Traditionally, coffee beans or “fruits” have grown at high altitudes in tropical climates. Of the greater than 50 coffee-producing countries, Brazil ranks first in total exports, followed by Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia. The majority of beans cultivated in these locales belong to the species Coffea Arabica, which contains less caffeine, and tastes less bitter, than the Robusta variety that may be used as filler in some brands.
Since its earliest cultivation in Ethiopia, the shrub-like C. arabica plant has been grown alongside other vegetation in multi-layered tropical forests. The natural canopy shades the coffee plants, which produce their highest yield at 35 percent – 65 percent shade. Local pollinators help to maximize the fruit set. The rich biodiversity of organic soil matter contributes to both the nutritional value and rich flavor of the beans.
Nature has optimized the process of growing great coffee. But once corporate greed intervened, coffee production took an unsustainable turn for the worse.
Sun plantations first gained ground in the 1970’s as a means of increasing yield. By removing canopy layers–essentially clear cutting sections of tropical forest—coffee bushes could be planted at higher densities. The hybrid plants that can survive these conditions also ripen faster in direct sunlight, resulting in more crops-per-year compared with shade-grown beans.
While there’s no doubt sun growing produces a quicker-to-market bean, the downsides are devastating.
As always, consumers have the power to influence how coffee is grown. Our choices at the checkout counter can go a long way toward diminishing demand for unsustainable, sun-grown coffee. Here are six good reasons to choose organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee.
Reduced exposure to pesticides. Pesticide use is much greater on sun plantations, where the natural pest control provided by native birds and insects is missing. Toxic chemicals and fertilizers not only threaten the farmers who work with them, but also run off into local water sources, killing off valuable microbes in the soil, and even depositing chemical residues in the harvested beans.
Save the forests. Deforestation goes hand-in-hand with sun-grown coffee. As of 2011, 2.5 million acres of forest in Central America alone have been clear cut to make way for sun plantations.i Without canopy cover, soil is much more vulnerable to erosion, which in turn facilitates run-off of pesticides and fertilizers. Deforestation is also a major contributor to global warming, accounting for about one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Preserve biodiversity. Biodiversity is a direct victim of sun plantations, from the soil to the skies. As with any monoculture crop, the destruction of plant and animal diversity that occurs on sun plantations destabilizes natural food webs. The loss of a complex layer of humus kills off soil microbes and nitrogen-fixing organisms, resulting in depleted, nutrient-poor soil. Above ground, clear cutting displaces millions of plant and animal species native to traditional coffee-growing ecosystems. Compared to shaded farms, for example, an estimated 95 percent fewer birds are found on sun plantations.
Save the soil and the climate. Increasingly scientists warn that stripping soil of its natural ability to store carbon makes any form of industrial agriculture, including coffee sun plantations, a big contributor to global warming. Alternatively, by protecting the soil’s natural ability to sequester carbon, we can actually reverse global warming
Support small farmers. Corporate agribusiness is the primary beneficiary of sun plantations. Small farmers, in contrast, are far less likely to support the clear cutting, toxic chemical usage and overall environmental destructiveness of sun growing. Supporting industrial coffee production means giving the go-ahead to sun farming, as well as edging out the small farmers who have a vested interest in the health of their land.
Drink better-tasting coffee. Taste is perhaps the casualty of sun growing that most directly affects consumers. Because coffee fruits ripen faster in the sun, they have less time to develop the positive qualities looked for by coffee connoisseurs. One study abstract found that shade-grown beans are larger, less bitter (owing to greater carbohydrate accumulation), and more complex in flavor compared to their sun-grown counterparts.
Whether your priority is to purchase ethically grown and processed coffee, or to just brew a cup with full-bodied flavor, opting to avoid sun-grown coffee is the best choice.
Unfortunately, it’s not always the easiest choice.
For one, not all shade-grown coffee is created equal. Growing conditions are usually classified into five categories, ranging from “rustic” (natural, multi-layered canopies), to unshaded monoculture (full sun). Some producers may choose to label their beans as shade-grown while only meeting the bare minimum shade requirements.
A good rule of thumb is that if a coffee’s growing conditions are not clearly labeled, it is most likely sun-grown. This map, from a 2010 University of Texas study, is a good resource for identifying countries with a high percentage of sun-grown coffee production.
The next question to ask when choosing coffee is, is it certified organic? If not, even though it may be shade-grown, it may well have been sprayed with pesticides.
Once you’ve confirmed shade-grown and organic, the last question to ask is, is it Fair Trade certified? The Fair Trade movement advocates for small-scale, sustainable farmers so that large buyers do not edge them off of their land. A variety of certifying groups have developed standards for qualifying fair trade practices. But beware—not all Fair Trade certifiers are created equal. This analysis by the Fair World Project provides a detailed breakdown of some of the major coffee brands, and just how they rank in terms of environmental, social and economic sustainability.
October is Fair Trade month—an opportunity for consumers to consider the benefits of buying a Fair Trade cup ‘o Joe, instead of perpetuating a corporate-controlled, unsustainable, environmentally destructive coffee-growing model.
The Case for Drinking as Much Coffee as You Like by LINDSAY ABRAMSNOV 30 2012, 8:45 AM ET
“What I tell patients is, if you like coffee, go ahead and drink as much as you want and can,” says Dr. Peter Martin, director of the Institute for Coffee Studies at Vanderbilt University. He’s even developed a metric for monitoring your dosage: If you are having trouble sleeping, cut back on your last cup of the day. From there, he says, “If you drink that much, it’s not going to do you any harm, and it might actually help you. A lot.”
Officially, the American Medical Association recommends conservatively that “moderate tea or coffee drinking likely has no negative effect on health, as long as you live an otherwise healthy lifestyle.” That is a lackluster endorsement in light of so much recent glowing research. Not only have most of coffee’s purported ill effects been disproven — the most recent review fails to link it the development of hypertension — but we have so, so much information about its benefits. We believe they extend from preventing Alzheimer’s disease to protecting the liver. What we know goes beyond small-scale studies or limited observations. The past couple of years have seen findings, that, taken together, suggest that we should embrace coffee for reasons beyond the benefits of caffeine, and that we might go so far as to consider it a nutrient.
The most recent findings that support coffee as a panacea will make their premiere this December in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Coffee, researchers found, appears to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
“There have been many metabolic studies that have shown that caffeine, in the short term, increases your blood glucose levels and increases insulin resistance,” Shilpa Bhupathiraju, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition and the study’s lead author, told me. But “those findings really didn’t translate into an increased risk for diabetes long-term.” During the over 20 years of follow-up, and controlling for all major lifestyle and dietary risk factors, coffee consumption, regardless of caffeine content, was associated with an 8 percent decrease in the risk of type 2 diabetes in women. In men, the reduction was 4 percent for regular coffee and 7 percent for decaf.
The findings were arrived at rigorously, relying on data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, two prospective studies that followed almost 80,000 women and over 40,000 men from the 1980s through 2008. Although self-reported, the data is believed to be extremely reliable because it comes from individuals who know more about health and disease than the average American (the downside, of course, is that results won’t always apply to the general population — but in this case, Bhupathuraju explained that there’s no reason to believe that the biological effects seen in health professionals wouldn’t be seen in everyone else).
That there were no major differences in risk reduction between regular and decaf coffee suggests there’s something in it, aside from its caffeine content, that could be contributing to these observed benefits. It also demonstrates that caffeine was in no way mitigating coffee’s therapeutic effects. Of course, what we choose to add to coffee can just as easily negate the benefits — various sugar-sweetened beverages were all significantly associated with an increased risk of diabetes. A learned taste for cream and sugar (made all the more enticing when they’re designed to smell like seasonal celebrations) is likely one of the reasons why we associate coffee more with decadence than prudence.
“Coffee and caffeine have been inexorably intertwined in our thinking, but truth is coffee contains a whole lot of other stuff with biological benefits,” said Martin. And most concerns about caffeine’s negative effects on the heart have been dispelled. In June, a meta-analysis of ten years of research went so far as to find an inverse association between habitual, moderate consumption and risk of heart failure. The association peaked at four cups per day, and coffee didn’t stop being beneficial until subjects had increased their daily consumption to beyond ten cups.
Caffeine might also function as a pain reliever. A study from September suggested as much when its authors stumbled across caffeinated coffee as a possible confounding variable in its study of the back, neck, and shoulder pains plaguing office drones: Those who reported drinking coffee before the experiment experienced less intense pain.
The data is even more intriguing — and more convincing — for caffeine’s effects as a salve against more existential pains. While a small study this month found that concentrated amounts of caffeine can increase positivity in the moment, last September the nurses’ cohort demonstrated a neat reduction in depression rates among women that became stronger with increased consumption of caffeinated coffee.
But that caffeine is only mechanism behind coffee’s health effects is supported by a small study of 554 Japanese adults from October that looked at coffee and green tea drinking habits in relation to the bundle of risk factors for coronary artery disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes known together as metabolic syndrome. Only coffee — not tea — was associated with reduced risk, mostly because of dramatic reductions observed in serum triglyceride levels.
So aside from caffeine, just what are you getting in a cup, or two, or six? Thousands of mostly understudied chemicals that contribute to flavor and aroma, including plant phenols, chlorogenic acids, and quinides, all of which function as antioxidants. Diterpenoids in unfiltered coffee may raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol. And, okay, there’s also ash which, to be fair, is no more healthful than you would think — though it certainly isn’t bad for you.
Some of the chemicals in coffee are known carcinogens, though as far as we know that’s only been seen in rodents, not in the small levels we encounter in everyday consumption. Findings, on the other hand, have been supporting that coffee can protect against some cancers. When the Harvard School of Public Health visited the Health Professionals Follow-Up cohort in May 2011, it found that coffee’s protective effects extend only to some types of prostate cancer (the most aggressive types, actually). In a separate study of the same population from this past July, they also found a reduced risk of basal cell carcinoma with increased caffeine intake.
The association was strongest for those who drank six or more cups per day.
That same high dosage is also effective in fighting against colorectal cancer, according to a prospective study from June of almost 500,000 adults conducted by the American Society for Nutrition. While the association was greatest for caffeinated varieties, decaf made a small but significant showing. A meta-analysis of 16 independent studies this past January added endometrial cancer to the group of cancers whose relative risk decreases with increased “dosage” of coffee. And in 2011, a large population of post-menopausal women in Sweden saw a “modest” reduction in breast cancer risk with immoderate consumption of 5 or more daily cups.
Taking the benefits of coffee any further requires being patient-specific, but findings apply to a broad range of populations and conditions:
If you have fatty liver disease, a study from last December found that unspecified amounts can reduce your risk of fibrosis.
If you’re on a road trip, you may respond like the 24 volunteers for an experiment from February who were subjected to two hours of simulated “monotonous highway driving,” given a short break, then sent back out for two more hours. Those given a cup of coffee during the break weaved less, and showed reductions in driving speed, mental effort, and subjective sleepiness. If you’re on a weight-training regimen, it can provide a mild (and legal) doping effect.
If you’re trying to enhance your workout, the results of one experiment from October found that drinks containing caffeine enhances performance. And then another one from Dr. Martin in 2008: He coauthored a study of people enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous in which there appeared to be an association between upping coffee intake and staying sober.
Nothing can be all good, and there is still information working against coffee — in October, The Atlantic reported on a study from the health professionals cohort that suggested a link between excessive coffee consumption and glaucoma. “The current recommendation is that if somebody’s not drinking coffee, you don’t tell them to start,” said Bhupathiraju.
But she agrees that drinking coffee, and more of it, does appear to be beneficial. The evidence remains overwhelmingly in coffee’s favor. Yes, it was observational, but the study published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at hundreds of thousands of men and women and found this bottom line result: people who drank coffee lived longer than those who didn’t.
And the more they drank, the longer they lived. If you’re into that sort of thing.