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Coffee Won't Keep Your Conscience Up at Night

Is fancy-schmancy, fair-trade, shade-grown, bird-friendly, etc., etc., specialty coffee better for the planet's climate, too?
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In recent years, buying a pound of coffee has come to require a moral and gastronomical scrupulousness not normally associated with food staples. Walk into the supermarket today, and you'll be confronted by bags of organic, fair-trade, shade-grown, bird-friendly, single-source coffees, each proudly emblazoned with a wordy label and an assortment of certifications. It can be a disorienting experience.

"Sometimes I look at my own coffee, and I scratch my head and I say, 'How could anybody figure this out?'" says Donald Schoenholt, the proprietor of New York-based Gillies Coffee, a specialty coffee merchant. "It's got a born-on date. It's got a fair-trade label. It's got an organic-certified label. Sometimes it's got a Smithsonian bird-friendly label. It's got a kosher label. People look at it, and I think they just get bleary-eyed."

Bleary-eyed or not, Americans clearly enjoy the fine Arabica beans — from East Africa, the Pacific Islands and Central and South America — that Schoenholt and an expanding pool of specialty roasters around the country are offering, often at prices well in excess of $10 a pound. A boutique industry in 2000, today specialty accounts for between 15 and 20 percent of all coffee consumption in the United States, according to the National Coffee Association.

And it's not just specialty coffee: It's specialty coffee produced in environmentally and socially virtuous ways, as ratified by an assortment of certifying organizations such as the Fair Trade Labeling Organization.

Considering the size of the market for high-quality "cause" coffees, it's a little surprising that specialty roasters and certifiers haven't been bolder in highlighting the climate credentials of their wares, not even on the ecology pages on Web sites for retail roasters like Green Earth or Rappahannock. Studies consistently show that consumers are more likely to buy a product if they know it's been produced in an environmentally responsible way. And, according to Matt Warning, a development economist at the University of Puget Sound, "It would be an easy case to make that the attributes that make a particular coffee climate friendly are also attributes common to quality coffees."

The brief for specialty coffee is straightforward. It can be boiled down to the fact that many of the best coffees grown today are done so in a fashion not terribly dissimilar to the way coffee was grown in the ninth century, when, legend has it, it was first discovered by a goatherd in the Ethiopian highlands.

"Coffee is one of the few global crops that lends itself to a reasonably holistic ecological approach," said Daniele Giovannucci, an agriculture consultant to the World Bank and the United Nations. "It naturally exists in the understory of a forest, whereas most global crops — cotton, wheat, rice — have been so evolved over the centuries that almost nowhere are they grown in the natural way."

The distinctions used to separate "specialty" from "commercial" coffee can lack clarity and consistency — some top roasters disdain Starbucks, for example, though it's widely credited with sparking the specialty coffee boom in the U.S.

Giovannucci finds it's easier to distinguish between specialty and commercial coffee if agriculture is the criterion. Specialty coffee beans are grown at high elevation, between 3,000 and 6,000 feet, often by smallholder farmers organized into collectives. The coffee is usually interspersed beneath the canopies of tropical or sub-tropical forests. And it's likely to be grown organically for a simple reason: Many, if not most, specialty coffee farmers don't have enough money to use fertilizer or pesticides to improve their crop yields. (This is particularly true in East Africa, the source of some of the finest coffees in the world).

Commercial coffees, by contrast, are generally grown on low-lying plantations, in direct sunlight, by operators who avail themselves of the standard repertoire of industrial farming techniques, including irrigation and the heavy application of pesticides and artificial fertilizer.

The damage industrial farming causes to the atmosphere — as well as the earth — is well known. Operating a large, modern farm results in a great deal of fossil fuel emissions, most dramatically from agrochemicals, which are manufactured using oil, coal and natural gas. As much as 40 percent of the energy used in the global food system goes toward the production of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.

"Climate change is one of the arguments for the organic movement across the board," explained Dan Clay, the director of the Institute of International Agriculture at Michigan State University. "Any crop that's produced without using fertilizer or petrochemicals is likely to have a significantly smaller greenhouse gas footprint."

But that's only the first of two major benefits, from a climate vantage, to growing coffee in the "natural" way — and not necessarily the more important. Tropical forests sequester carbon better than anything else on the world's land surfaces. No one knows exactly how much forestland has been cleared for commercial coffee cultivation, but the amount is significant.

"There's a major difference if we're growing shade or sun coffee," said Holly Gibbs, a Stanford researcher who studies the role of deforestation in accelerating climate change. (Deforestation is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, after the energy sector.)

She said that in addition to the increased likelihood that commercial coffee is grown on deforested land, specialty coffee provides an incentive to conserve rainforest. If tree canopies are valuable, inasmuch as they protect specialty coffee operations, they're less likely to be cut down and burned. In the last three decades, El Salvador has destroyed 80 to 90 percent of its cultivatable forestland; what remains is devoted to shade coffee.

Of course, in some ways, coffee isn't well adapted to the imperatives of the low-impact, low-carbon lifestyle. For one thing, the very process of making it suitable for consumption — roasting it — is carbon intensive.

"When you roast coffee, that stuff that goes up the flue? That's all carbon," said Donald Schoenholt. "What we're doing, basically, is we're running a big fireplace."

But both Clay and Giovannucci emphasized that because coffee is a global food crop — more like wheat than wine — that a significant portion of it is still grown without recourse to industrial farming techniques is important.

"The amount of coffee still grown in the natural way is not the majority anymore," Giovannucci said, "but it's still significant."

By the same token, both were at pains to stress that in the world of coffee — which is grown in many different ways in many different parts of the world — exceptions exist to every rule. Simply because a coffee is of high quality does not ensure its carbon credentials. Moreover, the possible emissions consequences of various methods of coffee farming have not been widely researched, resulting in a dearth of empirical evidence on the subject. And yet the sheer scope of global coffee production is such that what is generally true — such as the fact that commercial coffees are likely to have a larger carbon footprint than specialty coffee — holds global import.

In 2008, nearly 6 billion tons of coffee was exported worldwide. (Clay estimated that shipping coffee from origin to the United States, by sea, accounts for between 2 and 3 percent of a coffee's typical carbon footprint.) By value, coffee has for decades been the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil. As a result, the way coffee is grown and produced — or even moved — has considerable environmental and social consequences.

Fortunately, the "natural" way of growing coffee — to use Giovannucci's term — tends also to be the best way. So as perplexing as buying a pound of coffee can nowadays be, odds are that searching out a more expensive, better tasting roast will pay environmental dividends, especially if it's certified organic and shade grown.

As Warning put it, "It's a win-win kind of thing. It's one of those harmonies of interest between people who want to buy good quality coffee and people who want to limit the negative effects of climate change."

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