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Chances Are, Your Cup of Coffee is Damaging the Environment

By Eric Zerkel
Published: May 5, 2014

A look at coffee beans at San Victor farm in Los Verdes village, near Guatemala City. (Image: JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Chances are, unless you live in Nigeria, you've got a caffeine itch that only a cup (or six) of coffee can scratch. Americans drink nearly a cup a day, and coffee consumption is only growing in the U.S.: As of 2013, some 83 percent of all Americans sip on some form of the coffee bean, according to a study from the National Coffee Association, up 5 percent from the year before.

But all that demand comes with a price, the sum of which extends well beyond the cost of that vente frappucino. According to a new study from researchers at the University of Texas, changes in coffee farming practices have resulted in a decrease in biodiversity on coffee farms, which in turn, degrades the surrounding environment.

Since the 1970's, coffee farmers in burgeoning areas like Brazil and Vietnam—the two largest producers of coffee in the world as of 2010—started switching from full shade farming of arabica beans to direct sunlight farming of robusta beans. For hundreds of years coffee farmers cultivated their plants under wildlife-rich tree canopies. The large trees provided a habitat for birds and bats that would naturally kill off crop jeopardizing insects. Nutrient-rich soil prevented erosion and replenished crops on a year-to-year basis, reports the Huffington Post.

That all changed when scientists discovered that growing sunlight-resistant robusta coffee plants in direct sunlight could increase the production of coffee plants in a given area. Soon, farmers were clearing out trees, killing off wildlife and applying pesticides and fertilizers that negatively impacted the sustainability and growth of the land.

"Intensive coffee production is not sustainable," Shalene Jha, the lead author of the study, said. "You exhaust the soil and after a couple of decades, it can no longer grow coffee. On the other hand, the oldest coffee farms in the world have thrived for centuries because the forest replenishes the soil for them."

Harvested Areas of Coffee

FAO 2010

Researchers found that direct sunlight farming is on the rise, despite the growing niche of sustainable and organic coffee consumption in the U.S. Even though specialty coffee sales in the U.S. have increased by more than 75 percent from 2000 to 2008, the total land area used for full shade farming has fallen from 43 percent to just 24 percent since 1996, the study found.

"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," said Jha. "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."

So if more people than ever are consuming specialty coffee, where do all of the direct sunlight coffee beans go? According to the Huffington Post you're more likely to find the beans in instant coffees and bulk ground coffee. Though, the writers note, even the arabica beans used in Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks' coffee could fall victim to direct sunlight practices.

Want to make sure your cup of joe isn't contributing to the environment's demise? The only way to ensure you don't drink direct sun coffee is to buy beans certified by the Rainforest Alliance or the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the Huffington Post notes.

MORE: Alaska's Disappearing Glaciers

Muir Glacier and Inlet (1895)

Muir Glacier and Inlet (1895)

In the photo above, the west shoreline of Muir Inlet in Alaska's Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve is shown as it appeared in 1895. Notice the lack of vegetation on the slopes of the mountains, and the glacier that stands more than 300 feet high. See the glacier as it looked in 2005 on the next page. (USGS/Bruce Molnia)

  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (1895)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (2005)
  • Plateau Glacier (1961)
  • Plateau Glacier (2003)
  • Bear Glacier (1920s)
  • Bear Glacier (2005)
  • Northwestern Glacier (1920s-1940s)
  • Northwestern Glacier (2005)
  • Northwestern Glacier (1909)
  • Northwestern Glacier (2004)
  • Pedersen Glacier (1920s-1940s)
  • Pedersen Glacier (2005)
  • Pedersen Glacier (1909)
  • Pedersen Glacier (2005)
  • Reid Glacier (1899)
  • Reid Glacier (2003)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (1890)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (2005)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (1896)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (2005)
  • Yale Glacier (1937)
  • Yale Glacier (2006)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (1880s-1890s)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (2005)
  • Muir Glacier (1941)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (1950)
  • Muir Glacier and Inlet (2004)
  • Carroll Glacier (1906)
  • Carroll Glacier (2004)
  • Muir Inlet (1976)
  • Muir Inlet (2003)
  • McCarty Glacier (1909)
  • McCarty Glacier (2004)
  • McCarty Glacier (1909)
  • McCarty Glacier (2004)
  • Muir and Adams Glaciers (1899)
  • Muir and Adams Glaciers (2003)
  • Yalik Glacier (1909)
  • Yalik Glacier (2004)
  • Denali National Park (1919)
  • Denali National Park (2004)
  • Northwestern Glacier (1920s-1940s)
  • Northwestern Glacier (2005)
  • Toboggan Glacier (1905)
  • Toboggan Glacier (2008)
  • Muir Inlet (1895)
  • Muir Inlet (2005)

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