How about some rainforest with your cup of joe?

BY Sarah Dowdey / POSTED September 2, 2009
(Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

With even the weakest brew of coffee, it’s likely you’ll find some pretty strong opinions ground up in the mix. Everything from taste, roast, fair trade, organics and even snobbery (Bux? Quelle horreur!). One of the newer distinctions on the block is “shade grown” or “bird friendly” beans, although until the 1970s, there wasn’t anything but.

Shade coffee is about growing Coffea plants the traditional way — under a forest canopy. It avoids deforestation, the loss of biodiversity and the genetic modification of the crop (because coffee isn’t meant to grow in full-sun, it requires some tinkering to make it happen). Daily Green estimates a single cup of shade grown preserves 2.3 square feet of rainforest.

And for indigenous communities hoping to market their coffee as fair trade, organic and shade-grown labels help make the sell, according to UCIRI, a Mexican co-op of small coffee producers. The reasoning makes sense: Consumers buying fair trade are already making an investment purchase of sorts, choosing to pay a few pennies more for ethical reasons. It follows that they might want that money to also support the environment.

Minimally invasive agriculture like shade-grown coffee offers a nice counterpart or complement to ecosystem services — the idea that a forest can be valued for its standing worth, not just its timber and farmland. Companies and governments with emissions reductions goals have started seeing forests as investments in their own right for CO2 absorption, flood prevention, soil regulation and rain generation — all valuable services that are pricy or impossible to replicate artificially.

But it’s hard for forestry offsets to compete with the agricultural value of land (the New York Times featured a Brazilian plot worth $1,300 per acre of soybeans but only $12 per acre of rainforest). It’s also hard to shake the idea that deforestation equals progress. Clearing the land is often a means of staking claim to it — something akin to the frontier mentality that had settlers in the American West chopping trees and slapping up cabins.

That’s why shade-grown coffee seems to offer a nice compromise, at least in areas where unobtrusive cultivation is possible. There’s still that human stake in agricultural cultivation without the environmental damage of full-sun monoculture. Coffee anyone?

What is shade coffee?
Rainforest Disproves Adage “Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees”
How Rainforests Work
How Fair Trade Works

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