Organic Coffee: Better for You and the Planet

With almost 20 billion pounds of coffee produced annually, coffee is among the top beverages consumed in the world and is number one in the United States. Why is this important? Because while coffee is the most popular beverage, it is also the most chemical-treated crop that we consume.

This means each cup of conventionally grown coffee contains things like Ochratoxin A, a mycotoxin that is classified as a possible carcinogen. There are even pesticides and contaminants linked to symptoms like fatigue and brain fog - exactly what most coffee drinkers are trying to avoid.

So, what’s a coffee drinker to do? Enter organic, shade grown coffee. Organic is more than just a fancy title in the coffee producers’ world. It really does mean your beans are grown in natural fertilizers and without chemicals. Moreover, these methods keep dangerous contaminants out of the surrounding water, preserve animal habitats, and create better working conditions for farmers. 

In this article, we’ll look at organic coffee vs regular, including what’s hiding in conventional coffee and how shade grown coffee could improve your morning along with the lives of millions of people around the world.

What’s Really Lurking in Conventional Coffee and How Did it Get So Bad?

Coffee all on its own offers a wealth of health benefits including cancer-fighting antioxidants, essential vitamins and may even reduce your risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. However, humans’ love of this powerful beverage created a demand that could not be met with normal farming methods. Things like pesticides were introduced to deter pests while large areas of animal habitat were destroyed to make room for crops.

With the vast majority of coffee being grown in developing countries where there are few regulations, there is even more risk of contamination with potentially harmful substances, including:

     Aflatoxin:  Aflatoxin has the nefarious distinction of being the strongest naturally occurring carcinogen. Because it is naturally occurring it is not exclusive to conventional coffee. However, many organic coffee growers take steps to prevent the formation of this mycotoxin. This includes special harvesting and storage methods that prevent mold growth, the cause of aflatoxin. Quality growers will also test for contaminants before sending crops off to market.

     Ochratoxin A (OTA): Like aflatoxin, ochratoxin is formed due to mold growth. Organic farmers use similar methods to prevent and test for this chemical. Ochratoxin can be of particular concern to coffee drinkers because it has both long-term and short-term effects. While it can be easy to discount the far-off potential consequences of carcinogens, it is harder to ignore ochratoxin’s ability to cause brain fog, dizziness, and chronic fatigue.

     Yeast: Yeast is not inherently bad and is actually part of what gives coffee its distinct flavor. However, excessive amounts of yeast can occur if roasted coffee beans are allowed to be contaminated with raw coffee beans. Most people will not have difficulty with this, but it can be harmful to people with sensitivities and weakened immune systems.

     Pesticides: “Pesticide” is the umbrella term for all substances used to control pests, including bugs, animals, and weeds. Herbicides, fungicides, insect repellent and many others are all included in this category and can be found in conventional coffee. While the intent of pesticides is not bad, chemicals and methods used by conventional coffee growers contaminate water, harm native wildlife, impact farmers’ health and increase the harmful chemicals in the coffee that reaches your mug.

Cost to Farmers  

It is important to note that some of the people most impacted by these contaminants are the farmers themselves. They not only handle the crops but drink the water where the chemical runoff occurs. Labor conditions and compensation compound the problem. Most farmers in developing countries receive only pennies of the final retail cost of their product. High competition further drives down prices. 

Cost to the Environment

Along with deforestation, one of the biggest environmental problems with conventional coffee growing is that it uses the unsustainable practice of ‘monocropping.’ This means the same crop is planted season after season. Without crop rotation, the soil is depleted of nutrients and erosion is increased.

Cost to Wildlife

Conventional coffee farming has a huge environmental impact, but one of the most devastating is its decimation of natural habitats. In order to make farming easier, trees are removed from the land, which is especially hard on bird populations.

How is Organic Shade Grown Coffee Solving the Problems of Conventional Coffee?

When discussing organic coffee vs regular, the difference really is like night and day, or dark roast and light roast if you will. As consumers and eco-friendly coffee roasters have become increasingly aware of the problems with conventional coffee, more attention is being paid to sustainability, farmers’ rights, and impact on wildlife. Shade grown coffee addresses many of these issues.

What is Shade Grown Coffee?

Traditional coffee plants love the shade. A canopy of tall trees is good for them and other wildlife. However, tall trees make harvesting difficult and limit the space for crops. Non-organic farming methods level the land and plant sun-tolerant coffee bean varieties.

Shade grown coffee works with the land

With rustic-style shade growing, farming is done around native plants. It is the least intrusive form of farming. There are other levels which include traditional and commercial polyculture. With these, some of the native plants are removed but tall trees are still present and there to preserve habitat. These methods also help to replenish the soil by planting more than one crop.

Is Shade Grown Coffee Always Organic?

No, but the vast majority is. It is also important to note that some coffee brands can claim to be shade grown but they are “Shaded Monocultures.” Yes, technically this type of growing includes tall trees that provide  shade, but they are not native trees. Instead, native plants are removed and then trees are planted alongside the crops. There is little diversity in the trees and only coffee is grown for harvesting.

Benefits of Organic Shade Grown Coffee

Shade grown coffee has a number of ecological and economic benefits:

     Natural Weed Control: Because weeds tend to not grow as well in shade, the coffee is allowed to flourish with reduced need for herbicides. Natural pollination is also increased which helps produce more fruit.

     Increased Biodiversity: With the increased diversity of crops and more natural environment, there is also a greater variety of birds, insects, spiders, wild flowers and more.

     Natural Pest Control: With increased biodiversity, there is also an increase in animals that help control other pests that would destroy coffee crops. This reduces the need for other pesticides.

     Reduced Erosion: The diversity of plants and larger trees helps to maintain soil and replenish nutrients. This has the potential for long term benefits as conventional coffee production erodes and depletes the land it uses.

     Climate Change: Shade providing trees also help to remove carbon from the environment and make these farms better able to withstand future changes in climate.

     Reduced Chemicals: Because there is a natural defense against weeds and pests, there is a reduced need for harmful chemicals. This keeps the crops safer and healthier for consumption while also stopping chemical runoff into the water.

     Provides Economic Opportunities: Eco-friendly coffee farmers using shade have a greater variety of crops to sell. This leaves them less vulnerable to the fluctuations of coffee market price and competition.

Feeling Good About Eco-Friendly Coffee

One of the most immediate benefits of buying organic coffee is that it just feels good. When you look for labels like “Shade-Grown” and “Fair Trade,” you are actively supporting coffee growing that benefits farmers, environment and your health. Make the world better one sip at a time.

At Larry’s Coffee, we source 100% organic, fair trade, shade grown coffee. Our company is a founding member of Cooperative Coffees, a group of independent coffee roasters importing coffee directly from farmers with the goal of defining a higher standard of partnership and fairness.[I1] 

Sources and Further Reading:

  1. http://www.ico.org/monthly_coffee_trade_stats.asp
  2. https://naturalforce.com/blogs/nutrition/coffee-mold-toxins-pesticides
  3. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/top-13-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coffee
  4. https://carto.com/blog/enveritas-coffee-poverty-visualization/
  5. https://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/coffee-and-its-impact-on-people-animals-and-the-planet/
  6. https://nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/ecological-benefits-shade-grown-coffee
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