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Sustainable Coffee Farming

Posted by on April 16, 2016

To understand sustainable coffee farming, one must first understand the idea of sustainable farming.  Luckily, it is not a complicated definition.  Sustainable simply means taking steps to ensure that the resources available to current generations remain at least as equally abundant to future generations.  Practices that do NOT take steps to ensure an equal bounty for future generations are NOT sustainable.  For example, while some may consider common household recycling a sustainable practice, it is not.  

Many of the 25 million coffee growers worldwide are on small family owned farms, where sustainability is important to ensure that lucrative crops continue.  On many of these farms organic farming traditions, which maintain sustainability, can be learned from older generations.  It is also preferable for these farmers to find alternatives to pesticides and herbicides, since they are usually more expensive than small farms can afford.  Most Yemen and Ethiopian farms also do not use pesticides because they are harmful to residents of the surrounding communities as well as their ecosystem, thus maintaining a sustainable practice.

Taking care of the surrounding ecosystem is another important factor of sustainability.  Wildlife such as birds are often endangered by larger commercial coffee farms because they choose to “sun drench” their coffee bushes, in order to obtain higher yields.  This method was not practiced until the 1970’s because the coffee plants, which originate in Southeast Asia were unable to survive the constant sun.  However “Sun Tolerant” plant strains were created and shade trees were taken out of the equation.  No trees means no birds, thus affecting the larger ecosystem.  Alternatively, a sustainable farm will use citrus trees and nitrogen fixing trees (which act as an organic fertilizer) to shade their crop.  This practice not only yields a diversified opportunity for the farm, but also generates a superior product.  Because coffee needs shade to develop it’s natural sugars.  These coffees are typically referred to as “Shade Grown”.

Certain labels, such as “Fair Trade” and “Organic” are conveniently mistaken for indicating a sustainably farmed product.  These labels generally mean that if all standards are met, a farm is “encouraged” toward sustainability.  However, as mentioned earlier, sustainable does not simply mean using recycled products or abstaining from the use of pesticides and herbicides.

The Rainforest Alliance seal (which is most recognizable by it little green frog) may be the most useful label when it comes to determining sustainable goods.  According to their website a Rainforest Alliance certification “ensures that goods were produced in compliance with strict guidelines protecting the environment, wildlife, workers and local communities” and “promotes improvements in agriculture and forestry”.  The Rainforest Alliance along with the Sustainable Agriculture Network have developed farming systems that not only produce bountiful shade grown coffee harvests without the use of pesticides, but are also a source for building materials, firewood, medicinal plants, fruits and honey. 

So while large corporate coffee farms seeking to mass produce lower quality beans are not at all as common as small family and co-op owned farms looking to improve their agriculture and quality of life, it is no easy task finding the products of these smaller farms on grocery store shelves.  Reading labels and looking for certifications can help.  It is also useful to be able to easily distinguish between the different labels and logos.  The more important sustainable farming is to consumers, the more important it will become to big business.

1. Sustainable coffee
2. Carrot for Cancer
3. International Coffee Organization – Developing a sustainable coffee …

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