For coffee aficionados, there’s nothing quite like sitting down to a fresh brew of the fragrant, intoxicating elixir. That distinctive aroma which gets your taste buds tingling in anticipation and when you take your first sip.…. Ahhhhhh yesssss, coffee………….!
Coffee is one of the most valuable, and traded, economical commodities in the world today. It’s also the most economically important member of the Rubicea Family, a group of plants that includes several medicinal and therapeutic species. The anti-malarial drug quinine for instance comes from the bark of trees in the Cinchona genus, as does warfarin and ipecac. Kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, is another Rubicea Family member. Kratom produces a number of potent stimulant and analgesic compounds that have long been used in traditional South East Asian medicine for treating pain, often as effectively as opioids like morphine.
Coffee’s particular genus is Coffea – no surprises there but what is surprising is that all up there are 124 species in the genus. However, only 3 of them are grown to produce coffee for consumption. These three are Coffea arabica, Coffea canephora (also known as Robusta), and Coffea liberica. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s coffee currently is arabica and most of the remainder is robusta. There are a few highly specialist and predominantly localized coffees produced from C. liberica, which is a major crop in the Philippines.
Coffea Arabica – The Superior Brew
The reason for arabica’s dominance is due to the superior coffee it produces by comparison with either of the other 2. Robusta coffee for instance is known to be generally bitterer than arabica but nevertheless is often used to bulk out cheaper varieties of coffee. This is no doubt why so many of these coffees taste so awful! Arabica is also lower in caffeine content.
However, arabica is more prone to diseases like coffee leaf rust and coffee berry disease than either of the other two species. Coffee leaf rust almost wiped out global production in the late 19th century and prompted producers to start developing rust resistant strains. It also led to the establishment of robusta as a viable alternative in some parts of the world because robusta is resistant to both these diseases. Prior to this, coffee was produced almost exclusively from arabica strains.
For organic devotees, there are also organic coffee producers. However, organic coffee does tend to be more expensive than regular coffee primarily because it is ‘shade grown’ and therefore slower to ripen. This slower ripening process improves the flavor of the coffee bean and the resulting coffee brew! Whilst coffee is naturally an under story plant, meaning that in its natural habitat it grows underneath other taller trees and shrubs, it is also happy being grown in full sun and at high altitudes. Indeed, some of the world’s finest varieties of coffee come from coffee trees growing in exactly those conditions!
The Many Environmental Benefits Of Organic Coffee
Where organic coffee really makes its mark is on the environmental front. The requirement for it to be shade grown has led to the development of some of the most bio-diverse and healthy agricultural eco systems in the world! This is largely due to the varied range of plant and tree species required to create the top and middle stories of the shade canopy – some plantations have more than 150 different plant and tree species growing. In turn, this provides a rich habitat for amazingly varied populations of migratory birds as well as native flora and fauna, which all contributes to the overall eco health of the site.
Shade Grown Coffee Versus Sun Grown Coffee
Studies conducted at some of the biggest shade grown and sun grown coffee plantations have revealed some amazing statistics. Bee populations are considerably higher in shade grown sites, attracted by the greater variety of plants available for pollen. Bees of course are essential for pollination! Insect populations in general are higher in shade grown plantations. There are also some 20 times more bird species on average living in shade grown sites and more mammal species as well. Combined, these factors all create a diverse food web that reduces the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides in these environments. The huge range of birds and mammals keep herbivorous insect pests under control instead!
That this system works extremely effectively was proven when one particular plantation excluded birds and discovered that coffee berry borer pest infections in their coffee trees increased by 70%. Another plantation removed lizards from the ecosystem and found their resident population of leaf-miners, which do a lot of damage to coffee trees, increased.
Other benefits of shade grown coffee plantations include less fertilizer as leaf matter from the shade canopy breaks down and naturally enriches the soil. There is also less water needed because the canopy keeps the soil moist – by comparison the soil in sunny plantations on average retain only about half the moisture of shade plantations. This increased moisture along with all the roots from the canopy plants helps prevent soil erosion as well. The large number of shade trees and shrubs on these shade plantations contribute to filtering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They also remove carbon from the environment, thereby directly contributing to a lower carbon footprint.
Organic Coffee Production – A Perfect Way To Help Improve The Environment
Organic production in general is also about improving environmental sustainability through the promotion and conservation of biodiversity and ecological balance. The shade grown coffee plantation with its tremendous eco diversity and sustainability lends itself to this beautifully. But as with all organic enterprises, obtaining organic certification is also about meeting the criteria set down by governing bodies. This means no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers whatsoever.
Most organic coffee is also ‘fair trade’ coffee. This means that it is purchased via direct agreements between organic growers, who must be listed in the International Fair Trade Coffee Register, and coffee importers. The coffee trader or middleman is excluded from the deal. The importer guarantees to pay the grower a fair price for their coffee and in return for credit advanced to the grower against future sales, is guaranteed a regular supply of coffee. This also provides the grower with some security of continuing sales as well.
So the next time you enjoy a fresh cup of coffee, you might like to find out whether it’s an organic, shade grown fair trade brew. And then ponder the many advantages to the environment that went into producing it!