What are the environmental impacts of our voracious appetite for coffee?

Prior to the 1960s, most coffee was grown under the shade canopies of other plants in conditions not unlike natural tropical forests. These traditional coffee plantations harbored a wide range of plant diversity, and therefore provided valuable habitat for large numbers of migratory birds and other wildlife. The abundant flora and fauna also helped keep pests in check while providing a wide range of natural nutrients for the soil.

But over the last four decades, the growing popularity of coffee began to dictate the need for greater production, and coffee growers started clearing their land in order to grow higher yield coffee that thrives in direct sunlight. While financially productive, this sun-grown coffee takes a heavy toll on the environment, on wildlife, and on workers? health by eliminating the surrounding biodiversity and requiring heavy use of toxic fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.

Among others, the Starbucks chain of coffee shops has been a recent innovator in trying to turn the situation around. In 1998 the company formed a partnership with Conservation International, a leading environmental non-profit, to encourage sustainable, shade-grown coffee production while also ensuring that small farmers and agricultural co-ops earn a living wage for their labors, a concept known as ?fair trade.? Starbucks? Organic Shade Grown Mexico, Decaf Shade Grown Mexico, and Conservation Colombia coffees are all grown in an ecologically sound manner that protects the surrounding natural environment and respects the economic needs of farmers.

Shade-grown brands are also becoming more widely available to those more inclined to brew their coffee at home. The Smithsonian?s National Zoo website features a handy listing of ?bird-friendly? coffee retailers (that is, bean sellers committed to shade-grown coffee only), searchable by zip code. The organization Rainforest Alliance, which also works to get the word out about coffee?s big footprint, certifies several brands, including Oriole Blend and Columbia Me?os de los Santos. And the website Coffee Review lists Green Mountain, Kaldi?s, Thanksgiving Coffee, New Harvest, Kaffe, Caf? Campesino and Coffee Tea Etc. as coffees that top the list in terms of pairing excellent taste with environmentally-responsible growing practices. Many of these brands are available at organic food specialty stores and at natural foods supermarkets like Whole Foods and Wild Oats.