THE GROUNDS FOR ORGANIC
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."
Technified coffee production threatens human health, as well. According to European Chemical News, Ciba has recalled the insecticide Miral 500 CS, an organophosphate nematicide 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 farmworkers 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.
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 theo nly 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.
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.
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.
- Equal Exchange buys from Union de Communidades de Indigenas de la Region de Istmo (UCIRI), which includes 1,000 small-farming families in the poor, mountainous isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico. "UCIRI strongly believes in the health of their community, and promotes other programs important to the indigenous culture, such as herbal medicine," says Ann Bokman of Equal Exchange. - Aztec Harvests Coffee Co. is owned collectively by small farmer co-ops in Mexico. - Royal Blue Organics buys only from the ISMAM cooperative (Indigenous Peoples of the Sierra Madre of Molozinth), and names its coffee CafE Mam after one of the Chiapas tribes. The company donates 20 percent of profits to pesticide reform groups. - Celia Marshall of Nature's Finest says, "We've always paid a premium for our coffee over and above what the market demands." - Part of the proceeds from Thanksgiving Coffee's organic Selva Negra brand goes to the Nicaraguan Center for Community Action. It also shares a portion of profits with farmers in Mexico, Guatemala and Peru. - Cafe Altura, on its Finca Irlanda farm in Mexico, has been pioneering biodynamically-grown coffee. - Freeze-dried biodynamic coffee from Papua New Guinea is available from Mount Hagen, the first certified organic instant. - The Organic Coffee Company, a division of Allegro, donates five percent of pretax profits to grassroots environmental groups, including the Rainforest Action Network.
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 inthe 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.
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 monoculture, heavily pruned, with a branch structure that doesn't support birds. Some shade coffees do use chemicals," Dr. Greenberg warns.
The following organic coffees have been certified by organizations such as the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), Farm Verified Organic or the Demeter Association:
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. (For example, Cafe Mam's 11/2 lb. bag costs $10.25 by mail, tax-free. Even with $3.50 priority shipping, it's less than Starbucks' 1 lb. for $9 plus tax.)
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.
Written by Mindy Pennybacker
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