Around almost every corner I see one (or many) coffee shops. Home to Starbucks, Seattle's Best coffee, Bigfoot Java and many other independent coffee shops, we Northwesterners basically live in the "coffee Mecca" of the United States. The Pacific Northwest, as a result, is full of coffee addicts and connoisseurs. And I'm no exception -- I can't go a day without my coffee.
Therefore it's no surprise that a museum exhibit entitled "Coffee: The world in your cup" would instantly get my attention. So today, between my French and English courses, I took the easy walk through the-forest-within-in-a-city that is the natural beauty that surrounds the Burke Museum to check out the exhibit.
The exhibit began with the history of coffee's discovery, its trade history and descriptions of the actual plants and various bean species. The beautiful photographs and rich descriptions of coffee within the exhibit -- much like drinking a nice cup of a highly concentrated coffee -- was enjoyable and energizing. However, the artsy exhibit had a deeper purpose than the aesthetic pleasures and vivid presentations of coffee that invited one into the exhibit. The exhibit was also created to produce awareness and to manifest care about the meaning behind coffee: the impacts on nature and over 20 million families worldwide who dedicate their livelihood to bring us our beloved beverage. I wanted to share with you some information that I learned at the exhibit and also share some ways in which you can help!
Coffee and natural habitats
There are many ways to grow coffee, but there are two that are most prevalent: shade-grown and sun-grown. Sun-grown cultivation is an unnatural production of coffee -- in order for this method of cultivation to be possible, areas have to be deforested to allow more sunlight and enough land for mass production. Land has to be deforested and big machines must be used to do so. Sun-grown has its benefits, such as more coffee being produced on the land and at a faster rate. Although this method produces more beans, this coffee is of lower quality, as coffee in its natural state of production grows in the shade and at a slower rate, which causes the beans to be more concentrated. And when the land is used up, the soil is worn out and the land has a hard time recovering, which means new lands have to be deforested for the next harvest.
This production method not only hurts the land but wildlife as well. When plants are removed from the land (and in abundance, as happens with readying land for sun-grown cultivation) there is less food and habitat for wildlife, such as Bengal tigers in India and chimpanzees near the Gombe River. Songbirds in Latin America have also been severely impacted by sun-grown cultivation.
Shade-grown coffee is much more beneficial. For one, it is coffee’s natural production method, and the beans are of a higher quality. The trees under which this coffee is grown create what is called a “shade canopy."
The shade canopy is rich in trees and plants and provides more food and shelter for wildlife. This method also doesn’t require deforestation or the use of big machines, which cause pollution and extra harm to the earth.
Something else that intensely harms the environment is inorganically grown coffee, which uses chemicals to control pests and maintain the coffee. Much of the waste from this type of production ends up in rivers and other water sources, causing deadly pollution. Organic coffee is farmed with natural methods to control pests and enrich the soil -- this protects not only water and wildlife, but workers as well.
Coffee and people
When thinking of the environment, many people forget that all human beings are part of nature as well as animals and plants. Many families in Latin America, Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia are hurt by coffee production. Most of these families have been coffee producers for centuries and rely on it as their sole source of income.
The most negative impact is unfair wages. Many of these families work under large companies and only receive $1-$10 a day to care for their families’ basic needs -- the exhibit even referred to these unfair wages as “the sweatshops of coffee production,” with its endless cycles of poverty and debt. And when competing for coffee sales with larger companies who solely employ machines and not people, independent family producers are often forced to sale their coffee at a low rate in order to make profit -- this is a form of unfair trade.
Seeking social justice
There is good news, however. Action is being taken to help in the following ways:
• The formation of farmer cooperatives helps small producers get loans, buy equipment, eliminate the middle man and obtain certifications.
• Technical assistance to small producers to improve production, processing and health.
• Social movements that strive to secure better working conditions.
• Investments by coffee companies (even big-time Starbucks is involved!) to ensure stable producing communities.
There are many things you can do to help with coffee production issues, such as getting involved with the movements above or donating to groups that assist in these problems. However, there are simple things you can do! For one, support coffee shops that invest in helping better coffee production and serve organic and free trade coffee.
And for those who shop for your grounds, keep your eye out for these labels to make sure you’re supporting the right companies: