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The Killer Bean
The picture may seem familiar. Tumbling out of bed and stumbling around in the kitchen—you begin your day. But wait. It cannot begin properly without that daily ritual, the morning cup of coffee. The aroma swirls throughout the room. What can compare to the richness and fullness of that first cup of coffee?
Americans lead the world in coffee drinking, consuming an average of 3.4 cups per person per day (Pennybacker 18). Gourmet coffee houses are sprouting up all over the place. But what is the real story behind this dark brown liquid? Is it as innocent as it first seems—just a pleasant morning pick-me-up? Unfortunately it isn’t. Much of today’s coffee is grown in such a way that it damages the environment, although it has been proven that there are far less harmful methods.
Coffee grows only in the tropics, in Mexico, Central and Latin America, Indonesia, and Africa. The field must be at an altitude between 3000 and 5000 feet with a temperature between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. For optimum growth, coffee must have shade from nearby trees and overhead growth, but it also requires at least two hours of sunlight each day (“Shrinking Shadowland” 60). These are the only requirements nececssary for coffee to grow well.
Coffee comes from small green beans that are really pits of a fruit resembling a cherry. The morning coffee poured into a mug comes from a small tree (or bush) that grew for seven years before it bloomed and grew the fruit that held the beans. After one of these trees produced one pound of coffee, its life was over (“Shrinking” 61).
It was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that coffee seeds from the Middle East took to the fertile soil of Latin America, the Carribean, and Africa. It spread rampantly, with demand for the coffee growing in the northern part of the world. Millions of acres of rainforest and jungle were planted with coffee trees. However, that was not a completely detrimental move. Because of coffee’s need for shade and its ability to be grown alongside other crops, it didn’t originally pose a hazard or threat to the environment. Habitats for animals were not drastically changed; indeed, the tropical ecosystems were much the same as before because the small coffee trees growing near the ground didn’t require any forests to be cleared or plants eliminated.
But this took a bad turn in 1970 when U.S. agricultural scientists decided to develop a new, high-yield coffee plant that grew only in the full sun. Farmers were easily convinced to adapt to this modernization because they could produce five times more coffee than before (Wille 63). With the support of local governments and the U.S. subsidization of $80 million towards the promotion of the new plant, it isn’t difficult to understand why many traditional coffee fields quickly became modern ones (Greenberg 27). As as result, over the past 40 years, Central America has lost two-thirds of its rainforests to coffee plantations at a rate of 40 million acres per year (Pennybacker 18). That figure is similar to Mexico.
These modern coffee plantations are so disastrous because they are mono-cultural; nothing can grow in the fields besides the stubby coffee bushes. According to Elizabeth Skinner, a director of the Rainforest Alliance, these modern plantations “create ecological deserts” that are growing at an alarming rate (“Shrinking” 63). One species thrives at the cost of many others.
As the rainforests disappear, so do the animals, especially migratory birds. One study found that bird species in coffee plantations have diminished by 94-97 percent since many farmers switched to sun-grown plantations. This is not surprising considering the fact that two-thirds of birds found in shade-grown coffee plantations live in the canopy of the trees, and less than ten percent actually feed among the coffee plants (“Why Migratory Birds” 2). At the turn of the century, there were 65 species of common migratory birds found in Guatemala. Today, only one-third of these birds have stable populations, another one-third seem to be in decline and 25 species are missing (Wille 62).
Despite this, as Wille writes, “No place in the world attracts such an extraordinary concentration of winter residents” (59). For example, in Guatemala, which is the same size as Ohio, there can be found in winter almost as many bird species as is found in the U.S., Central, and Latin America during the rest of the year. In fact, one-third of all migratory bird species that breed in the U.S. make that southern tropical part of the world their winter destination (Wille 59).
However, the continued loss of rainforests due to sun-grown coffee fields is making it more and more difficult for these birds to find a place to migrate each winter. As the number of the birds decreases in Central and Latin America due to the spread of the sun plantations, they will also become a rarer sight in North America. Already in the last two decades of coffee industrialization, the number of birds detected by the National Weather Service Radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico has been depleted by half (Pennybacker 19).
Not only do full-sun plantations threaten the existence of migratory birds, they are damaging to the environment in other ways as well. Due to the nature of the hybrid variety, the full-sun coffee plants possess little inbred resistance to pests and disease. This makes the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers necessary. It has become so mandatory, in fact, that coffee trees are the third most heavily sprayed crop in the world following cotton and tobacco (“Shrinking” 69). Seventy percent of the world’s coffee is sprayed with synthetic chemicals, some of which have been banned in the U.S. for years. Although not harmful to the coffee drinker because of the roasting process, the large amount of chemicals sprayed do harm the workers who cultivate the coffee. In July 1993, 60 laborers on a Colombian coffee plantation were injured and one killed after they were exposed to high levels of endosulfan, a pesticide banned in many developed countries but commonly used on coffee plantations (“Shrinking” 64). These pesticides and fertilizers also kill insects and microrganisms and pollute the water.
Sun plantations also contribute to soil erosion. The coffee trees must face not only the blasting heat with no protection, they must also endure the pounding rain from tropical rainstorms, which gradually washes much of the soil into little wandering toxic streams. Sun coffee fields are financially risky for the farmer because they can be damaged by harsh weather and because they limit farmers to one-crop farming.
What then is the solution? What will reverse this potential ecological disaster? It is ironic that the solution can be found in the problem. Growing coffee on shade plantation rather than sun plantations doesn’t strip the ecosystem to its bare bones; instead it will sustain it. There are many advantages to growing coffee on shade plantations. Shade farms can cultivate other crops, including cacao, fruit, avocados, and trees for firewood. This provides security for the farmer and promotes richer ecological diversity. The trees grown along with the coffee bushes on shade plantations add nitrogen into the soil. The leaf litter is home for many insects that devour the organisms that attack roots, while the shade trees protect coffee plants from the harsh rain and sun, help maintain soil quality, and reduce the need for labor-intensive weeding (“Why Migratory Birds” 3).
Another advantage of shade farms is that plants and animals like to call these areas home. Due to the diversity of plants and trees found in shade plantations, the plantations are said to “mimic natural forests” (Wille 60). Researchers have found 66 species of trees and shrubs and 73 wildlife species in one single field. Full-sun fields host only 20 species of animals and plants (Wille 62). On one full-sun plantation no midsize terrestrial mammals were to be found, contrasting with 24 that were found on a full-shade plantation (Wille 63).
These shade farms not only have a positive effect on the environment in general, but more specifically they are beneficial for migratory birds. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has found over 150 species of birds on coffee fields and crop cacao plantations. That number is larger than all other habitats on the planet except for untouched tropical forests, which are disappearing at an alarming rate (“Why Migratory Birds” 1).
In Mexico, the Caribbean islands, and Colombia, the areas where most migratory birds populate, the shade plantations are virtually indistinguishable from true forests and cover 2.7 million hectares, or almost half of the permanent cropland (“Why Migratory Birds” 2). Likewise, in Mexico coffee plantations cover an area over half the size of all the major moist tropical forest reserves, providing woodland habitat in areas where almost no large reserves are found. In El Salvador the traditional shade coffee plantations are about the only canopy habitat left in the country and account for about 60 percent of the surviving forested areas (Pennybacker 18). For this reason, the Salvadoran Minister of Agriculture and Livestock has officially classified coffee plantations as forest, alluding to the increasingly important role they play in the environment.
Much of the coffee grown in that part of the world is for export to other countries, especially to the U.S. It is the third most common import in the U.S., coming only after oil and steel. Of all the coffee produced in the world, Americans consume one third of it. Each year coffee brings in revenues of $10 billion (“Why Migratory Birds” 3).
With this much control of the market, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Americans to push for a more ecologically sound method of cultivating coffee, such as the use of shade plantations. Organic coffee is readily available in stores for the environmentally conscious and is certifiably grown without the use of chemicals and pesticides, likely on shade farms. While it is growing in popularity, organic coffee still makes up less than one percent of the 6.3 billion pounds of coffee imported into the U.S. each year (Pennybacker 19).
The merits of full-sun coffee plantations don’t even begin to measure up to the benefits of shade plantations. Shade plantations benefit both the workers and the environment. The few extra dollars paid for organic coffee might make the difference between seeing that black-throated green warbler in your yard again next spring or not.
Pennybacker, Mindy. “Habitat-Saving Habit.”Audubon Nov./Dec. 1997: 18-19. Print.
“Shrinking Shadowland.” Utne Reader. Nov/Dec. 1994: 72. Print.
“Why Migratory Birds Are Crazy for Coffee.” Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. 1997. Smithsonian Institution. Web. 24 April 2000.
Wille, Chris. “The Birds and the Beans.” Audubon Nov./Dec. 1994: 58-64. Print.
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Based on a work at k12.thoughtfullearning.com/studentmodels/killer-bean.