The coffee tree originated in northeast Africa and over the last five hundred years or so made its way around the globe. It is really a bush, rather than a tree, preferring to grow under a canopy of shade trees.Traditionally, coffee trees would be interspersed with other trees and plants creating a forest garden that maintains many of the benefits of a natural forest. Additionally, the forest cover limits erosion and replenishes the soil creating a rich environment.
In the last thirty years, however, new practices for coffee farming have been steadily adopted.These techniques, dubbed “modern” or “technified” farming, eliminate the shade canopy in favor of dense planting of single species of commercial crops, such as coffee.The amount of coffee produced in such a farm can be as much as three to five times that from a traditional farm, but it comes at a considerable price.With the removal of other plants the ground must be heavily fertilized to make up for the loss of organic matter. Moreover, pesticides and fungicides must be used to combat the outbreak of disease and infestation since with the loss of plant diversity, natural checks and balances no longer operate. All of these chemical additions degrade the soil and weaken the plants and consequently the life span of the trees drops dramatically.
Not only does the environment suffer, but so too does the flavor of the coffee. Without the rich soil the coffee tree survives on a poor diet of chemical inputs. This, along with the adoption of hybrid coffee tree varieties that produce more beans, creates thinner and more acidy tasting coffee. As more areas of the world adopt technified farming, more and more coffee is overproduced, degrading coffee quality and the environment.
But there is a way to challenge these practices: support small, Fair Trade farmers.
Fair Trade farming goes beyond the price we pay for coffee—it addresses how farming practices affect our environment. FairTrade coffee comes from traditional coffee farmers who have been growing coffee according to proven techniques handed down from generations before them. In the past, large wealthy coffee estates marginalized these farmers.They did not have direct access to processing mills to properly prepare their coffee for the export trade.With no other choice, they often sold their beans to coffee buyers sent out from the large estates who would offer them far below the true value of their product.
By forming co-operatives, these farmers are able to produce a product that now, with over-production from the big estates, is better tasting.With FairTrade certification they can realize a better return for their labor. Not all shade grown coffee is FairTrade, but virtually all Fair Trade coffee is shade grown. By purchasing Fair Trade coffee you not only get a better tasting coffee, you also are supporting farming practices that respect the environment.