March 23, 2021

Coffee may be Life, but it’s kinda Killing the Planet.

Coffee: the (almost) universal morning ritual.

For many, coffee is a way of life. It is the fuel we turn to when we are stressed, overloaded, or just need a kick to keep us going through a difficult task or a tough time.

For some, the morning cup is almost sacred.

For most, it’s a time to stare into the morning and just exist before we get on with the tasks of the day.

One morning, a few years ago, I was doing my morning bean routine and reflecting on what it must have taken for my coffee to get to me. What was the impact of my compulsive morning habit?

Yes, I tried to do things right. You know, buying organic (for health reasons) and Fair Trade (for purported ethical reasons), but I still wondered: what other impacts was I not aware of? I wanted to get to the bottom of that question.

After doing a lot of reading and talking to people much more knowledgeable than I was, I discovered that the single most important thing I could do to ensure that my morning ritual was not only sustaining me but also sustaining the planet was to buy shade-grown coffee.

If you will bear with me for a few paragraphs, I will explain to you why I only buy shade-grown coffee and why you should too.

Our coffee habits are having real effects on the climate.

Did you know that it takes 22 coffee trees per year to sustain the average coffee drinker’s habit? Worse, 99 percent of these trees are currently grown in large fields cut out of tropical forests.

“Sun-growing” caught on in the 1970s as a strategy to increase the yield of coffee crops (thanks, capitalism). That strategy worked. Sun tolerant coffee plants do produce at a higher rate than those grown in the shade. However, that increase in production comes at a price.

In the wild, coffee grows under trees. It thrives in darker and cooler areas where the beans have the chance to grow slowly and develop sugars and flavors that result in a deep and full-flavored coffee. In the search for increased yields, we gave up those flavors and cut down the trees that provided shade to the plants.

This deforestation has caused massive environmental problems. Removing tropical forests decimates a critical carbon sink from our environment, directly contributing to the catastrophic climate events we have been seeing for the past few decades.

It also destroys the habitats of migratory birds who rely on these trees for their survival. In fact, there has been a 20 percent decline in migratory bird populations since the introduction of sun-grown farming practices that can be directly tied to sun-growing coffee plantations.

On top of all of that, cutting down trees has led to an increase in the rate of soil depletion and erosion. It is a vicious cycle that is unsustainable for the environment and the livelihoods of farmers and it is just the result of growing coffee in the sun.

In addition to all of the above problems, many sun-grown coffee plantations also use pesticides, fertilizers, and synthetic substances to further increase crop yield. These practices lead to an even greater environmental impact and have a very real negative effect on the flavor, acidity, and even jitteriness of our morning cup of joe.

Shade-grown coffee is a big part of the solution.

So, how do we solve these problems? We are not going to stop drinking coffee. (Please, no!) We love it. Plus, it is a massive industry that provides a living for millions of people worldwide.

The answer is to grow coffee the way it has been grown for thousands of years. Under the canopy of the trees.

There are real benefits to drinking shade-grown coffee. For you as the coffee drinker, you can enjoy a less acidic brew, smoothness on the palate, richer flavor, and even less harsh levels of caffeine.

For the planet, you’re doing a whole lot more, as well as taking the necessary steps toward saving the coffee industry itself from extinction.

I think we can all agree that we would prefer better-tasting coffee that doesn’t make us anxious or bother our stomachs. Especially if drinking it helps to save people’s livelihoods and protect the environment.

It is still important to buy organic.

If shade-grown solves the problems of deforestation, biodiversity, and soil erosion—organic solves the second half of the environmental equation.

There are a lot of definitions of the term “organic,” which vary depending on the certifying country. At the very least, organic means that the crop was produced without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, or synthetic substances. This matters for your health. You don’t want to drink pesticides, preservatives, fertilizer, or sewage. It also means that those same substances are not being introduced to the soil (and water table) of the places where beans are grown or the farmers growing them. Healthy soil and water mean healthy, high-quality beans and healthy farmers who can continue to produce them.

So, what should I look for when I buy my coffee? Three things:

When I am at the grocery store or shopping online for my next bag of beans, I make sure to check three boxes so that I can be confident my coffee is serving me, the environment, and the people producing it.

The first is organic. Look for the USDA Organic seal that we have all become familiar with.

Second, look for the “Bird Friendly” certification developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. This certification is the gold standard for shade-grown coffee and specifies that the canopy must be at least 12 meters high, be made up of native trees, have at least 40 percent shade cover with two layers of vegetation, and be made up of 10 different species of trees through the growing area.

Finally, I make sure I know that the farmers growing my coffee are compensated fairly for their work. While Fair Trade is one way to do this, it’s critical to dig deep (also acknowledging the Direct Trade argument) to ensure your farmers are paid sustainable wages, or you may be funding their poverty.

Following these three simple rules when we buy our coffee is the best way we can ensure that we are treating both the environment and our fellow human beings with the respect and dignity both deserve.


If you’re inspired to reevaluate the coffee you buy with one that benefits you and the planet, please check out Peak State Coffee’s Kickstarter (only live for the next five days).


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