I just had the opportunity to visit Tuscany, Italy for a couple weeks with my family. While there we visited a lot of farms (some wine, some vegetables and several animal farms), which got me thinking about organic farming and the organic movement in the US. Organic is a term that refers to growing and processing a particular crop (say coffee for instance!) without the use of chemicals. Organic is all “the rage” these days. Everyone wants to buy organic! Whole Foods will literally sell you the organic pima cotton t-shirt off their back right now (for $45+tax).
When my family and I first converted to buying organic foods several years ago I was only thinking about the immediate health benefits: not putting unnecessary and potentially harmful chemicals into my body has to be better for me than putting the chemicals in there, right? Right! I didn’t realize that non-organic farming can actually hurt the earth that the plant is growing in, making it unusable after a few short years!
At Black River Roasters we firmly support organic farming. Trendy or not (sorry Whole Foods), it’s the real deal. 95%+ of our coffees are organic and there’s a reason for it: we care about the Earth that we live on (both the planet and the actual soil), the health of our clients (and ourselves as we’re coffee addicts) and the farmers that grow, pick and process our coffee. Without a sustainable crop, there is no “next year’s crop.” The farmer must up and move on, usually leaving dead soil behind and resorting to tearing down another bit of rain forest to make a new plot to grow coffee. If this process happens enough times, there literally won’t be anymore places to grow coffee and the farmers will be out of a job. So will I for that matter!
Backing up a bit, the term organic wasn’t even used or needed before the early-twentieth century. Most everything we’d grown in the past was just, well, grown! It was earth, rain, and sunlight. Maybe some manure if you had the nose for it. Not chemical fertilizers. Animal husbandry consisted of cattle that grazed on grass, chickens that ranged and animals were not given steroids, hormones or antibiotics. At some point the industrial revolution happened and with it came the need for bigger, better, and faster everything. Someone figured out that you could put chemicals into the soil and a tomato plant would produce bigger tomatoes. And that if you finished a cow on grain it might provide more steaks, or fed it RCBH you might get more milk to sell. Never mind that the tomato was mealy and was literally poisoned, or that the steak tasted different and milk tainted: the ends justified the means. This quickly become commonplace. Flash forward to current times, and none of this even seems odd. It is totally normal to not be able to pronounce 1/2 of the ingredients on anything you buy in the super market, as those ingredients have been made in a lab, or at the very least fertilized or injected by something made in a lab.
What does this mean for coffee?
The situation I’ve described is bad. Very bad in fact, but for coffee it’s even worse. Coffee is the most chemically treated food in the world. The chemical used the most is petroleum, in the form of synthetic petroleum-based fertilizers. These fertilizers get applied to the soil daily, and slowly seep in and take away the soil’s fertility. They also get into the water system, tainting local water supplies that are used to water the crops, and the people! I don’t even want to know what consuming ground coffee grown in synthetic petroleum does to my internal organs but it doesn’t take a doctor to realize that it’s probably no good for you.
Another thing about coffee is that it needs shade to grow. Coffee thrives in the rainforest because the rainforest provides exactly what it needs: a canopy of shade, and birds to eat insects off of the trees. The places you can plant coffee trees are thus limited by the need for shade, which means that owners of conventional coffee farms have a hard time finding spots to put new crops. In the 1950s, however, coffee growers in Brazil paid scientists to develop a new hybrid coffee plant that can grow in direct sunlight. Now over 70% of the world’s coffee trees are grown from this hybrid seed, which makes the rainforest obsolete and therefore unnecessary, as it takes up valuable space. So guess what happens? Yep: they tear down the rainforest and plant more coffee trees. These trees can grow in the sunlight and since there are no birds (their habitat is dead) they have to spray chemical pesticides on the trees to kill the bugs. The synthetic petroleum fertilizer and the pesticides usually take a few years to completely destroy the surrounding ecosystem, and the soil the farm is on will no longer grow coffee. So they repeat the process a mile into the forest. More bad news: The Environmental Protection Agency warns that 30 percent of insecticides and 60 percent of herbicides are carcinogenic, or cancer-causing.
As I learned about these coffee growing practices, mostly starting in Brazil and spreading to South and Central America, I was horrified. There are estimates that up to TWENTY-FIVE percent of the South American rainforest has been lost to coffee growing initiatives. Rainforests keep us alive; they process more toxins out of the earth and air than your average forest, and provide shelter and food for hundreds of thousands of species to live on and in. Species that are ultimately at the bottom of our food chain: species we need. For this reason alone we find it our responsibility to promote organic coffees.
Sorry for the long post. I felt like some of you might like to know some of the details of coffee growing business, and how organic, sustainable growing practices can affect you and yours. Please support organic farming and by doing so support your planet, your families and your own health.