In the wild, coffee grows as a small tree, up to 15 feet tall, in the undercanopy of subtropical and tropical rainforests. For many hundreds of years, since coffee was discovered in the ninth century in Ethiopia, this is how it was cultivated.
In the 20th century, it was established that coffee would grow much faster and produce a lot more beans more quickly if it was grown in the sun. That is to say, cut down the forest and just grow coffee on the land. This only became possible in the 20th century because when you do this, you impoverish the soil and weaken the coffee plant, requiring the use of fertilizers and pesticides to keep production up.
Needless to say, the result has been extremely harmful to the 40,000 square miles of earth around the globe dedicated to coffee production. The loss of the forests has devastated many bird species, and in parts of Kenya, the loss of forestis endangering native populations of gorillas and chimpanzees
Recently, though an alternative has come up. In marketing speak, it’s called “shade coffee” but more accurately it should be called “traditional coffee”. It issimply the reversion to the old-style techniques of maintaining your coffee plantation under the canopy of a forest.
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has introduced a “bird friendly coffee” marketing scheme to promote the growth and consumption of shade coffee over sun coffe. You can also just look for organic coffee; for reasons mentioned above, sun-grown coffee is just about impossible to grow organically.
Of course, the down side is that it does cost more. The coffee grows more slowly and the beans take longer to mature and they are smaller and harder. Surprisingly, though, it doesn’t cost that much more. A bit of research at starbucks.com seems to indicate about a $3 price difference in a pound bag of coffee.
But there’s another way to be kind to the environment and save money: Bring your own cup when you buy a cup of coffee. Starbucks serves up 1.5 billion cups of coffee each year. That’s 1.5 billion paper cups and plastic lids sitting in a landfill somewhere. And that doesn’t even count Dunkin Donuts, or Peet’s, or all the other coffee shops out there. That is a lot of cups that got 15 minutes of use and will be sitting in dumps for years (the lids especially).
I’ve recently taken to bringing my own cup with me when I go to my local Peet’s. Peet’s and Starbucks both take 10 cents off the cost if you bring your own cup. And actually, my Peet’s also charges me for a small even though my cup holds a large, so I get more like 50 cents off.
Just a few things to consider for all you coffee-lovers out there.