Once upon a time, all coffee was organically grown. Even when chemical fertilizers came on the scene, coffee continued to be organically grown for many decades. Since coffee bushes love shade, they were traditionally planted under existing forest canopy – an arrangement that worked well. The majority, if not all organic coffee, is still shade-grown.
In natural ecosystems like forest environments, the web of life is strong, woven of interdependencies between species. Birds and butterflies that live in the forest, for example, take care of most coffee-consuming pests. And as leaves and other forest vegetable matter rots, the soil is naturally fertilized. Farmers, taking a page out from the book of the multi-species environments that they controlled, would plant other crops like bananas and nut trees alongside coffee. This would provide them with additional income sources at different times of the year as well as food for themselves. Traditional farmers still use sustainable farming techniques like composting coffee pulp, rotating crops and spreading natural fertilizers.
Not that long ago—in the 1970s and 1980s—industrial coffee cultivation began, especially in Brazil and Colombia, where coffee production was huge at the time (and still is). Traditional growing techniques in use since the 18th Century began to be replaced with clearcutting and monocropping. Monocrops are more efficient because more coffee can be grown in the same amount of space, but there are certain drawbacks. It essentially removes the existing ecosystem and the vast majority of species within it. As species interdependencies are cut out, crop cultivation becomes more fragile. Pesticides are required, since the birds and butterflies within a forest environment are no longer there to control pests. Chemical fertilizers are needed, as the natural soil fertilization that occurs in a forest environment is no longer there.
Industrial coffee farming creates issues such as pesticide pollution, deforestation and the eradication of entire species of songbird through habitat destruction. Another issue is the degradation of water sources in coffee growing regions, resulting in both environmental issues and worker exposure to contaminated water.
Chemical adaptations weren’t the only ways that industrial coffee growers dealt with more challenging growing conditions. They also changed the strains of the coffees to be more sun-resistant. They grew a lot more robusta coffee rather than arabica because the former is hardier than the latter, although robusta is not as flavourful. In Africa, cultivation techniques didn’t change much because farmers there couldn’t afford the fertilizers that monocropping required. It’s ironic that we have come full circle back to organic as the gold standard in coffee.
The importance of organic coffee today
Certified organic coffee is grown in the old way: under existing canopies. This ensures the health of the soil, the forest and the farmer. When you see ‘shade-grown’ and ‘bird-friendly’ on a package of coffee, know that organic coffee is by default both shade-grown and bird-friendly…but the converse is not always true.
As consumers, we have the ability to promote change by the way that we spend. Supporting organically grown coffee is an important way of promoting social justice and a healthy global environment. By choosing organic coffee, you support grassroots change in coffee-growing communities that will benefit the local people and the ecosystems on which they depend for many generations into the future.