How to Find a Friendly Cup of Coffee: Essential Answer

Q: I can't live without my morning coffee, and though I want to do the right thing for the environment, the eco-friendly coffees cost significantly more than regular old Joe. Is there any real benefit to buying eco-friendly coffee? Which is the best:  organic, shade grown, fair trade or bird friendly? And is there a budget-friendly source for eco-friendly coffee?

Asked by William Check, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.

I hear you—I can’t live without my morning cup of coffee, either. And on those more lethargic days, an afternoon cup can be nice, too. While we’re on the subject, a pre-study-time evening cup sometimes gives me a helpful boost.

You get the picture. The pursuit of coffee has become almost as central to the American lifestyle as the drive to get the most out of one’s dollar. But unfortunately, as Julie Craves of the website Coffee & Conservation says, “there’s no such thing as a ‘cheap’ cup of coffee.” Although it seems less expensive to the consumer, the production of “regular old Joe” carries serious costs to the environment, and to coffee farmers around the world. When I interviewed Craves, who is a bird ecologist at the University of Michigan, she explained, “For decades the price of coffee has been artificially low and, in the quest to keep coffee inexpensive, our environment has suffered in the form of deforestation [and in] farmers who cannot afford to send their children to school or raise their standard of living.”

For coffee, it all comes down to overproduction. Farmers who cultivate bulk “commodity crops,” such as coffee, sugar and other products sold cheaply, make the most profit by producing as much of their crop as they can. Craves explained that this motivates clearing rainforest in order to plant more, as well as using pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers to boost short-term production. The environment suffers in the long run—lost winter habitat in the tropics means fewer migratory songbirds in North America in the summer, for one thing—and the increased production pushes prices still lower. Over 25 million people directly depend on growing coffee for a living, and it provides additional support for another estimated 100 million people. Artificially low coffee prices, and the fact that coffee farmers only receive five to 10 percent of the retail price of a pound of coffee, makes this a very risky dependence for most of them.

The environmental issues at hand are strongly linked with the social ones. Smaller-scale farmers tend to use more traditional agroforestry methods, growing coffee along with other crops in the shady forest understory. Agroforestry systems can act as refuges for plants, insects, and birds—and they are thought to prevent further deforestation. Coffee is grown in some of the world’s most biodiverse regions, making these benefits all the more important. But these more sustainable growing methods also produce a somewhat lower yield—and that makes competing with industrial-scale production very difficult indeed.

Between 70 and 80 percent of coffee in the United States is sold by just four companies: Nestle, Kraft, Proctor and Gamble, and Sara Lee. These companies most often sell blends that contain a high proportion of robusta coffee, a hardier, but less flavorful bean than the traditional arabica coffee. Robusta coffee is better suited to plantation-style production, and thus often grown on deforested land and with pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Seeking out coffee made from arabica beans can be a first step toward making sure that it is less harmful to people and the planet—and more enjoyable to your palate.

Seeking out coffee certified as eco-friendly or sustainable can help you be even more certain. Please see the Nitty-gritty for a breakdown of the different labels that can help guide your choice. But the short answer is, “bird-friendly” certification is your best bet for finding a truly sustainable cup of coffee.

In the meantime, we are in what is often referred to as a “coffee crisis,” and it’s one that has nothing to do with dozing off in class. Right now, the simple pleasure—or for some of us, basic necessity—of a cup of coffee is causing serious harm to tropical environments and the people and wildlife that depend on them. Insisting on a more sustainable brew will cost you a little more—maybe a dollar or two for a pound of certified beans. But that extra money will do real good for birds, for people, and even for your palate.

Samantha Larson, '11, is a graduate student in Earth Systems.