Tired? Stressed? Cold? Sit down, put your feet up, pour yourself a nice warm cup of coffee and relax. Oh wait! Yep, you've just doomed the orangutangs to extinction. Well that's considerate of you, in your Nike shoes and listening to your Trap music on your white Apple headphones, while the orangutangs listen to chainsaws and low cries of the rainforest falling to it's end.
So that may be a bit dramatic, but the coffee industry does have it's issues. As one of the largest agricultural exports in the world, with around 100,000 km² of farmland growing coffee (England is around 130,000 km²) it's a pretty big industry, and you may be surprised to find out, big industries sometimes have negative environmental impacts! It was a shock for me when I found that out too. Coffee traditionally grows in forests, shaded under the canopy of the tall Red-Leaves figs and beside the wise, old Moringa. Plumed, singing birds would sit amidst the red coffee cherries and help young Ethiopian couples fall in love in the shade of the forest. Small animals would play games in the roots and the dried leaves that had fallen to the forest floor. Sufi mystics would leave the brewed beans by their shrines, at peace with their god and creation. Then came the 1970's. The Magic Bus to India ended, The Rolling Stones' 'Sticky Fingers' marked the peak of civilization, and a hybrid coffee plant that could be grown using non traditional methods was invented – the three most memorable things of that decade.
This hybrid species can be grown outside of the forest, in a method called 'sun cultivation.' This basically means that the coffee plants can be grown in fields without the shade of the forest, meaning that there is a greater concentration of coffee plants, and farmers were told that therefore a greater yield could be achieved. This type of mono-culture farming, which is common in modern agriculture, comes with problems. In the 1990's farmers were heavily encouraged to switch from traditional coffee farming to this new method, and an unexpected result occurred – switching coffee production from its traditional form in which it is grown within forests, to a method which involves no forest, or any other plant species, meant a massive amount of deforestation occurred. Bizarre how these things turn out. Around 2.5 million acres of forest was cleared in Brazil to make space for sun cultivated coffee farming, and a lot of other statistics about forests getting shanked up. This is indeed a problem. Apart from the simple and selfish fact that its a shame not to have forest because they are nice things, there is an enormous loss of plant, animal, and insect species; waterways are disrupted; topsoil steady degrades; fertilizers and chemicals are necessary which cause further environmental damage; etc. Those are things we don't like.
Now forest grown coffee doesn't have the issues of sun cultivated coffee, so it would be great to revert back to more natural times. It can mean paying a tiny bit more for your flat white, but science has shown that we are all going to die if we don't change our behaviour. Forest coffee means polyculture farms, which means that we can drink coffee while the birds and the bees have homes too. And this is good for everyone, less carbon dioxide floating around, more clean waterways, more variety of species to retain the balance of the natural ecosystem that humans are actually also reliant on remaining balanced. We need to start thinking more like this, for our future as well as the animals and plants most of us don't particularly care about. Cultivating attitudes in agriculture and consumption that are not degrading the planet reflect societies wider attitudes towards everything. We should take what we want in ways that are not harmful, and therefore allow coexistence and a future for all of us. We should be gentle to our planet, our home. Maybe we would then also be more gentle to each other.
A little heads up on how to sip a soya cappuccino with the lads and not have to end up on smack due to the guilt: look for the certifications. Organic is obviously a good start, poisons are not ideal for a healthy life, but organic certifications don't mean that the farming is sustainable or the coffee is Fairtrade or anything.
Better would be Rainforest Alliance, which is a a non-profit organisation that seeks to 'conserve biodiversity and ensure sustainable livelihoods by transforming land-use practices, business practices, and consumer behavior' [www.rainforest-alliance.org]. To be certified farms must have a certain amount of different species of native tree and canopy cover in order to resemble the natural forest better. Rainforest Alliance claim that farmers see greater yields and revenue through adopting their methods, as well as benefiting from a fairtrade-type deal that is part of the Rainforest Alliance requirements (by the way, of the 70 million cups of coffee a drunk a day, only about 6.4 million are fairtrade, but as a vegan I only care about animals and trees, not people, so ignore that point).
The Rainforest Alliance seal can be used on coffee blends that contain only 30% Rainforest Alliance certified coffee, but that must be stated on the product. There is also not a guarantee of the coffee being organic. Bird friendly coffee is probably the best coffee in terms of environmental impact. No, it is not referring to coffee the females can also drink, but coffee that is grown on farms that are conducive to healthy habitats for birds and bats. This means a large variety of native tree species, good canopy cover, and it is organic. Even though its the feathery birds this is referring to, I guarantee that if you fellas bang on about how you drink bird friendly coffee you will pull birds. So winner winner, chicken's have habitats where they can eat their dinner.
The point of this article is just to encourage people to be more aware of how small choices can make a difference to the environment. Maybe just have a look at your local coffee outlet and see if they are doing good stuff, if not, maybe think about changing? Attitudes are changing, and need to continue to do so. Farming in ways that reflect the natural world seem to not have the negatives that come with most modern agriculture. This is interesting, and maybe an attitude we need to explore and consider a lot more. So there it is. Coffee, another thing to feel bad about, you're welcome.