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COFFEE:
THE GROUNDS FOR ORGANIC

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.

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 biodiversity, 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, avocadoes 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.

"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.

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Written by Mindy Pennybacker


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