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Fertile Grounds: Sustainable Coffee and Consumer Activism

by Jessica Percifield, published
Photo: Walter Rodriguez // Creative Commons

Photo: Walter Rodriguez // Creative Commons

When people talk about sustainability, they often favor a top-down approach. Traditional avenues for change, such as writing your congressperson, starting a petition or rallying around new legislation that sets new standards for businesses to follow comes to mind. However, real change often comes when there are certain prerequisites that give it natural momentum. Where is momentum building naturally and poised to yield the most returns if you add in today's most powerful tool for change; consumer activism? The answer lies in the cup of coffee you may be sipping on right now. Sustainable coffee growing practices and consumer activism go hand in hand.

America's Largest Food Import

Not many people realize that the crude they pour into their cup everyday is the second most traded commodity, beat out only by petroleum. In fact, coffee is the largest U.S. food import. It is estimated by that over 130 million consumers in the US are coffee drinkers. All coffee is grown between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn on some 11 million hectares of land and growing.

Shade Grown vs Sun Grown Coffee

A few decades ago a hybrid of the coffee tree was developed that yielded twice as many coffee beans per crop because of extreme demand for the bean. The thought was that this would equal more money for farmers, but these sun grown trees have half the life span and require expensive pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides to grow. These chemicals destroy the soil over time as well as the natural habitats of local birds, insects and reptiles. The result of favoring sun grown coffee: mass deforestation, pollution of natural water sources, and as stated above loss in biodiversity. Shade grown coffee is grown under tropical canopies, which helps preserve the land and environment of coffee growing regions. It yields less coffee per crop and is slower growing, but many believe it makes up for it in taste.

Unsustainable Soil Loss

Aside from extensive environmental degradation and grave losses in biodiversity, the larger concern is top soil depletion. U.S. farming practices that favor conventional monoculture farming currently deplete topsoil at 1% per year. And According to the National Academy of Sciences, cropland in the U.S. is being eroded at least 10 times faster than it can be replaced. The highest percentage of degradation is occurring in Central America although every country is facing this crisis. The Earth’s natural systems simply cannot replace the lost soil fast enough, and this is why local movements for organically grown or sustainably grown foods have taken off.

The Human Impact

There are millions of people living in the environments being depleted and polluted. 25 million farmers and their families in these tropical farm zones live in a cycle of poverty and debt designed to keep prices artificially low on coffee as well as other exports cherished by US Consumers, such as chocolate. Alongside sustainable growing practices toward a safer environment, Farmer's CoOps, Fair Trade and Direct Trade modes of compensating farmer's have grown up around addressing this issue.

Agitators: Climate Change & Population Growth

Whether you believe in Global Warming, cooling, or simply that the Earth’s weather patterns have changed in the past and will change again, we only have so much topsoil. It seems almost redundant to discuss the effects of projected world population growth on the Earth’s limited topsoil. Given the present conditions, without the added complications of climate change and population growth, we’re still depleting our soil 10 times faster than it can be replaced.

Fertile Grounds for Change

While visible chains like Starbucks make up 30% of the Coffee Industry, Independent Coffee Roasters and Cafes still make up the other 70%. Many of these local coffee alternatives already buy sustainably grown coffee. Wherever you see labels, such as Organic, Shade Grown, Fair Trade, Direct Trade, or Farmer's CoOps, you can be sure that the Cafe Owner or Roaster considered the environmental, social and economic impact of buying these coffee beans. Could creating subsidies, or legislative bills that continue to motivate businesses in this direction be helpful, sure, but the rationality and desire are pre-existing, so it may not be necessary. Café Virtuoso, just one such Coffee Roaster, prides itself on choosing organically grown fairly traded beans and defines sustainability as,

“A process that can go on indefinitely; environmentally, socially and economically.”

In fact, the world’s largest coffee trade association, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), believes that

“Coffee is uniquely positioned to drive globally sustainable concepts that produce positive outcomes across multiple industries and points on the supply chain.”

The SCAA also contends through its Low Impact Café program that the more common these sustainable farming practices become, the lower the cost will be for all those in the industry, which translates to lower long term costs for the consumer.

The Power of Consumer Activism

Consumers can buy the change they want to see. U.S. consumers are strategically positioned as the largest consumers of coffee to support this already "organic" trend towards sustainability.

Since the Citizens United decision in 2010, consumer activism has taken center stage as one of the most effective tools for change. Consumers en mass realized for the first time that how they spent their hard earned dollars had direct political, social and economic ramifications. Remember the $5 dollar debit card fee that was going to be implemented by Bank of America in 2011, and the resulting “Bank Transfer Day”? And GoDaddy’s back pedaling on its support of SOPA in 2012? GoDaddy not only dropped its support, but also began to take action against the bill.

By buying into this already "organic" trend in the coffee industry, US consumers are uniquely positioned to amplify the impact on topsoil erosion taking one giant leap for mankind in the direction of sustainability. The cost of ignoring this ripe opportunity will be far greater than buying a sustainably sourced cup of coffee.

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