Every year, with the change in seasons, nothing short of a miracle occurs - the annual migration of a number of species of birds from one hemisphere to another. It is a great time of year for birders. Several colorful species of birds regularly stop in our part of the world offering us a glimpse of their splendid plumage. For several years now the number of birds migrating has steadily decreased. Scientists recording this decline point to a number of factors, one of them may be your morning cup of air-roasted coffee.
The coffee tree originated in north east Africa and over the last five hundred years or so made its way around the globe. It is really a bush, rather than a tree, preferring to grow under a canopy of shade trees. Traditionally, coffee trees would be interspersed with other trees and plants creating a forest garden that maintains many of the benefits of a natural forest. In this setting, as much as 85% of the native and migratory species of animals continue to inhabit the area. Additionally, the forest cover limits erosion and replenishes the soil creating a rich environment.
In the last twenty-five years however, new practices for coffee farming have been steadily adopted. These techniques, dubbed "modern," or "technified" farming, eliminate the shade canopy in favor of dense planting of single species of commercial crops, such as coffee. The amount of coffee produced in such a farm can be as much as three to five times that from a traditional farm, but it comes at a considerable price. With the removal of other plants the ground must be heavily fertilized to make up for the loss of organic matter. Moreover, pesticides and fungicides must be used to combat the outbreak of disease and infestation since with the loss of plant diversity, natural checks and balances no longer operate. All of these inputs degrade the soil and weaken the plants and consequently the life span of the trees drops dramatically.
Not only does the environment suffer, but so too does the flavor of the coffee. Without the rich soil the coffee tree survives on a poor diet of chemical inputs. This, along with the adoption of hybrid coffee tree varieties that produce more beans, creates thinner and more acidic tasting coffee. As more areas of the world adopt technified farming, more and more coffee is overproduced, degrading coffee quality and the environment. Without the canopy of shade trees, migrating birds lose precious habitat as they make their journeys.
The loss of migrating bird species should be taken as an omen, like the canary in a cage for miners. Technified farming is literally killing our planet, and continued unchecked, may spell the end for us. But there is a way to challenge these practices: support organic farming.
Organic farming goes beyond the concern for what we put into our bodies, it addresses how farming practices affect our environment. Organic coffee comes from traditional coffee farmers, farmers who have been growing coffee according to proven techniques handed down from generations before them.
In the past, large wealthy coffee estates marginalized these farmers. They did not have direct access to processing mills to properly prepare their coffee for the export trade. With no other choice, they often sold their beans to coffee buyers sent out from the large estate who would offer them far below the true value of their product. By forming cooperatives, these farmers can pull together their efforts and produce a product that now, with over-production from the big estates, is better tasting. And with organic certification they can realize a better return for their labor.
Not all shade grown coffee is organic, but virtually all organic coffee is shade grown. By purchasing organic coffee you not only get a better tasting coffee, you also are supporting farming practices that respect the environment and provides us habitat for the migratory birds we love to have visit us in our own back yard.