Doing it right

Why sustainable farming works—and how it creates a better product for consumers and the environment

Coffee, the second-largest commodity in the world, is a multi-billion dollar industry that has massive environmental impacts globally. Unfortunately, in recent decades especially, that impact has been predominantly negative.

U.S. coffee roasters who have been in the business for decades have seen the environmental degradation caused by attempts to modernize the agriculture of coffee. Shortly after clear-cut methods were adopted, roasters watched the forests disappear. It was clear something dramatic was happening — plantations were increasing production, but the side effects of that were devastating.

Coffee is grown in what is sometimes called the "bean belt," which circles the globe between the tropics. It prefers mild, stable temperatures, and is best grown at elevation. Because coffee bushes are evergreen and voracious consumers of nutrients, they will weaken soil that isn't replenished.

Coffee also grows best at elevation, typically on hills. This means that hard panning, a side effect of clear cutting that results in packed dirt preventing water retention, further exacerbates soil runoff as the fertile earth washes down compacted inclines during rains.

The Las Lajas collective, which grows Warrior One coffee, is a little oasis among industrial coffee plantations. It farms sustainably and it's easy to see the effects. "You can have one foot in the Las Lajas field and one in the neighboring field and tell the difference in the health and solidity of the coffee bushes right away," said Stephen Madigosky, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science at Widener University who works with Las Lajas as part of his Cultivation to Cup initiative.

La roya fungus is another problem increasingly plaguing coffee growers as temperatures rise. Las Lajas has so far been free of the incursion. Encouragingly, other area collectives are taking notice of the positive results at Las Lajas, and considering adopting their methods for their own farms.

But Las Lajas still faces some looming environmental challenges.

"Costa Rica is lucky because of its altitude and volcanic soil, but coffee plants are being stressed by the changing thermal profiles," reports Madigosky. "Those microclimates that the folks in Las Lajas are growing in are already heating up, and they know it because they have their finger on the pulse of the terrain and notice even the smallest changes. What's ahead for them could be catastrophic, and they are already planning on purchasing land further up the mountain."

"More development is inevitable, and it needs to be done sustainably," urges Madigosky. "For example, we are already changing the migratory patterns of huge populations of birds in Central America due to habitat loss. Uncontrolled development could be devastating to wildlife."