Coffee that's made in the shade

Environment: With so much coffee coming to market at the expense of Central American forests, Starbucks has seen the light.

August 16, 1999|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SEATTLE -- Coffee in Seattle always has been about more than a caffeine jolt to start your day, or a cuppa joe to go with a piece of pie. No, in Seattle coffee is an affirmation of individual good taste in a world of supermarket shelf mediocrity, a fragrant bowl of warmth on a morning chilly with rain.

Some would like it to be more. Folk singer Danny O'Keefe, who roasts his own beans in a popcorn popper, believes those who pick up a cup should be thinking about where their coffee came from and whether the beans at the corner espresso stand were farmed on clear-cut forests in Central America.

"The vote the consumer makes is the most powerful form of democracy there is," says O'Keefe, whose Vashon Island-based Songbird Foundation is working to lure coffee drinkers to beans grown under a nurturing cover of native trees.

With sales of specialty and gourmet blends booming, conservation groups see boosting consumer demand for shade-grown coffee as the best hope to preserve forests from the Andes to Mexico that are falling victim to treeless expanses of sun-grown coffee plantations.

After years of nibbling at the edges of the market, the shade-grown coffee movement made a leap with Starbucks Coffee Co.'s announcement that it would introduce a shade-grown line in its North American stores this week.

The "made-in-the-shade" coffee comes by way of a partnership with Conservation International, in which Starbucks will provide $150,000 over the next three years for soil and water conservation, crop diversification and pesticide reduction at farms surrounding the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, where it will buy the coffee. "Our goal is to expand our purchases of coffee that is sensitive to environmental issues," said Sue Mecklenburg, Starbucks' director of environmental affairs.

A handful of suppliers now offer certified shade-grown coffee lines, but nowhere near the amount needed to promote a halt to deforestation. Since the 1970s, an estimated 2.7 million acres of mixed forest -- half the land in the coffee-growing region -- have been felled to make way for the more productive sun-grown coffee.

Central American and Indonesian coffee historically was grown under the leafy canopy at the edge of the rain forests. But in the 1970s, farmers began felling trees and converting to full-sun plantations in a move originally intended to halt the spread of a fungal infection.

Most of the bulk coffee on supermarket shelves comes from sun plantations, as does a good part of the specialty coffee supply.

Deforestation in the coffee-growing region is responsible for a host of environmental ills, particularly the loss of habitat for hundreds of bird species.

These include not only native species, such as parrots and toucans, but a large number of North American songbirds that winter in Central American forests.

Yet in the region from the Andes northward into Mexico, some 60 percent of the coffee fields have been converted to "technified" sun plantations, so-called because they generally require more use of fertilizers and mechanical farming.

The issue is complicated because some plantations may bill themselves as shade-grown while not having the appropriate diversity of trees; and many Latin American countries have large quantities of coffee lands that have never been forested, but may well be grown in an organic manner.

Thus, coffee importers are seeking a uniform method of determining whether the coffee is "sustainably" grown, Griswold said.

None of it will work unless coffee growers who keep their forests intact receive a higher price for forgoing the higher-volume sun-grown plants. Starbucks is offering its shade-grown coffee at $12.95 a pound, near the top of its price range, and guaranteeing that the premium goes to the grower.

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