Stain on your coffee cup, and conscience? Study slams ‘unsustainable’ production


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'Stained by coffee, tea and wine': Should you worry about your coffee conscience? (B Rosen/Flickr)
'Stained by coffee, tea and wine': Should you worry about your coffee conscience? (B Rosen/Flickr)

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Modern 'intensive' coffee production is unsustainable and risks destroying soil within a couple of decades, rendering it useless, US researchers claim.

It's an issue you don't think of as you cradle your morning Joe and ride that first caffeine crest of the day - sure, you might know where you coffee comes from, whether it is Fairtrade, but is it shade grown? If not, then it might put your conscience in the shade...

Writing in the April issue of the journal Biodiversity, ​Shalene Jha, assistant professor at the University of Texas, Austin College of Natural Scientists says: “The paradox is that there is greater public interest than ever in environmentally friendly coffee.

"But where coffee production is expanding across the globe, it tends to be very intensive,”​ she adds.

Jha et al. write that coffee cultivation had gained widespread attention over the last three decades for its crucial role in supporting local and global biodiversity.

In the article they summarize how global patterns in coffee distribution and shade vegetation have changed, and discussing implications for biodiversity, eco-system services and livelihoods.

Cutting down shade trees leads to dire consequences

Jha et al. found that although overall cultivated coffee areas had fallen since 1990, coffee production and agricultural intensification had increased in many places and shifted globally – with production up in Asia but down in Africa, for instance.

“Ecosystem services such as pollination, pest control, climate regulation and nutrient sequestration are generally greater in shaded coffee farms, but many coffee-growing regions are removing shade trees from their management,”​ the scientists write.

“Although it is clear that there are ecological and socio-economic benefits associated with shaded coffee, we expose the many challenges and future research priorities needed to link sustainable coffee management with sustainable livelihoods,”​ they add.

Traditional shade grown coffee is cultivated under a diverse canopy of native forest trees in moderate to dense shade, allowing a wealth of plant and animal life to remain.

Shade-grown coffee plantations provide corridors for migrating birds, attract valuable pollinators (bees, bats, etc.) and provide ecosystems that filter water and air, stabilize soils during heavy rain, store carbon and replenish soil nutrients.

Despite public awareness, shade-grown coffee production minimal

The team found that shade grown coffee production grew since 1996, but that land used for non-shade grown 'intensive' coffee farming rose at a much faster rate: shade-grown coffee fell from 43% of the total cultivated area used for coffee growing to 24% in 2010 (FAO dataset: 2014).

Denouncing intensive coffee production as unsustainable, Jha says: “You exhaust the soil and after a couple of decades, it can no longer grow coffee.

“We were surprised that despite two decades of growth in public awareness of where coffee comes from, and the different ways to manage it for biodiversity, shade-grown coffee only seems to be grown in a few regions,"​ she adds.

“The shifts aren’t what we would expect based on what we see on the shelves in the US,”​ she says, noting that specialty coffees (including organic and shade grown) accounted for 37% of coffee sales by volume in 2012 and nearly half by value at $30-32bn.

Title: ​‘Shade Coffee: Update on a Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity’

Authors: ​Jha, S., Bacon, C.M., Philpott, S.M., Mendez, E., Laderach, P., Rice, R.A.

Source: Biodiversity​, Published online April 16 2014, doi: 10.1093/biosci/biu038

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