Costa Rica takes their coffee very seriously. Since 1989, the government has forbidden the growing of the lesser coffee, Coffea canephora (robusta). It is only legal to cultivate Coffea arabica, which is considered the superior coffee because its lower caffeine content decreases bitterness and allows for more subtle flavors. If you buy specialty coffee, you’re buying arabica!
So let’s talk about coffee. Every day, we consume over 2.25 billion cups of coffee worldwide. Such a massive market has far-reaching consequences, and we ought to consider those impacts before making purchases in order to be responsible consumers.
(I realize that this already sounds tedious and sanctimonious, so I promise that there will be a cute frog picture if you make it to the end.)
There’s a whole host of problems when it comes to the pricing and distribution of coffee. The short of it is that large coffee companies like Nestle, Kraft, Proctor&Gamble and Sara Lee end up with 90% of the profit, while 10% goes to their farmers. That small cut is not nearly enough to live on, which is why it’s important to purchase fair trade coffee that offers reasonable prices for the growers.
We’re all familiar with that cause. Buy fair trade. …But you’re not off the hook yet. What about the environmental impacts of coffee here in the tropics?
Coffee plants themselves are no great problem: these small, scrubby plants can grow in topographies that don’t suit other crops, and they’re often grown in high altitude areas where they help to reduce erosion, encourage the accumulation of leaf litter nutrients, and increase rainwater retention in the soil.
But these benefits are often overshadowed by the problems caused by large-scale farms, which prompt the next great debate: sun coffee vs. shade coffee.
Many farmers prefer sun-grown coffee for its fewer pest problems and high (short term) bean production, but this ultimately depletes soil nutrients and the large swathes of cropland fragment old-growth tropical forests.
Shade coffee, on the other hand, is grown in the forest understory, which allows some animal habitat to persist and assists natural pollinators in doing their job, both with the coffee plants and in the surrounding environment. The shade coffee plants produce fewer beans, but do so for much longer before they burn out and require labor-intensive replacement. The leaf drop from plants overhead also assists with faster nutrient turnover, creating healthier, richer soils. It unfortunately requires some extra work on the part of the farmer, and sometimes the additional application of agrochemicals as there is no harsh sun to keep the insects at bay, but it’s significantly better for our world’s vanishing tropical forests.
To drive this point home, we had the pleasure of visiting local sun- and shade- coffee farms while we’re here in Costa Rica! The sun plantation was about what you would expect; rows upon rows of bushy plants baking in the dry heat, rooted in cracked, bare soil. Let’s not dwell on it.
But the shade coffee plantation, run by our host Don Roberto, was truly fascinating. In addition to shading his crops with tree-like banana plants, he digs pits along the coffee rows to help catch dropped leaves and keep soil nutrients cycling, and grows everything in terraces to help avoid erosion and runoff. Click on the photos below to expand them and read their captions!
So, in conclusion: buy fair trade and shade grown coffee, or you’re a horrible person.
I kid, I kid. But if you enjoy a hot cup of morning drugs, perhaps consider looking into where it’s coming from. Your dollars are shaping the lives of people across the world, which is both amazing and terrifying. And if you’re already happy with your coffee buying habits, maybe read up on your favorite brands anyway. It’s an interesting business to learn about!
P.S. If you scrolled straight to the bottom for the frog photo, you are a cheater. Our deal was that you read.
God is watching.