Today’s House Blend – Dark-Roasted Conservation

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Tree-shaded coffee in Ethiopia. Credit: Trees For The Future (Flickr).

Each morning, many of people (myself included) thank coffee for its ability to transform us into fully functioning humans. But besides gracing us with its glorious, caffeinated existence, coffee has another benefit. Now, you can wake up to the sweet, full-bodied aroma of…environmental conservation?

But wait—human cultivated crops are bad for the environment, right? Generally, yes. Agriculture contributes to habitat loss, soil degradation, pesticide pollution, and a host of other environmental problems. However, this is not always the case. A recent study found that coffee production in Ethiopia actually helps prevent deforestation.

In Ethiopia, Coffea arabica only grows in a certain range of higher elevation—1300 to 2000 meters above sea level. The researchers predicted that deforestation would be less in this area—and they were right. Using satellite images to track changes in forest cover, Kristoffer Hylander of Stockholm University and his team found that, over the past thirty-seven years, deforestation rates in coffee’s elevation range were significantly lower. Like, thirty percent lower.

That’s a pretty big deal. While forests in the study areas above coffee’s elevation had been reduced to up to half their original coverage, forests within range had retained at least 4/5th. But what’s the connection to coffee?

Coffee arabica plants thrive in the damp, semi-shaded environment that the Ethiopian forest provides. So, for the local farmers and the nation’s government who benefit from coffee production, it makes sense to leave these forests intact.

It’s important to remember that this isn’t because of any great love of nature—it’s still economically driven. If people can make a profit off coffee in forested areas, they don’t need to clear the land for other crops or sell it to logging companies. But hey, all those unfelled trees aren’t complaining.

The researchers also note that global warming may play to our advantage in using coffee for conservation. As temperature and precipitation increase with climate change, the elevation range in which coffee can thrive will broaden.

Using coffee production to conserve forests in places like Ethiopia sounds almost too good to be true. And it is, unfortunately. Like the caffeine headache that follows in the wake of a coffee addiction, coffee agriculture comes with a downside. Researchers noticed a decline in biodiversity among the habitats coffee has helped conserve.

Spoiler alert: It’s because humans kind of like making money.

Coffee is grown in a range of different systems. At one end of the spectrum is forest coffee, which is the most “natural”—the habitat is mostly left alone. At the other is garden coffee, or coffee plantations, which is more intensely managed by humans.

Garden coffee is exactly what it sounds like—these plants grow in an area heavily modified to promote their growth. Coffee is planted in a higher density than would naturally occur, competing species are yanked out like weeds, and sometimes trees are even cleared to allow more sunlight.

So, the more we try to optimize coffee growth to maximize profits by messing with the environment, the more we throw the ecosystem out of whack—no surprise there. When human influence is stronger, the conservation benefits of coffee production are fewer—because what good is saving an environment stripped of its biodiversity?

Not only is this bad news for the biodiversity of the immediate area and specialist species, heavy management is detrimental to coffee itself. As humans select the “best” plants for their coffee plantations over wild-growing coffee, genetic diversity among coffee is declining. A lack of genetic diversity gives species less room to adapt, and leaves them more vulnerable to extinction.

All of this is a bit of a buzz-kill, but we shouldn’t write off coffee production as a useful part in conservation just yet. The key to using coffee to our advantage lies in finding a balance between forest conservation and loss of biodiversity. If we can focus conservation policy on promoting systems like forest coffee that are less destructive to the environment, coffee production could go a long way in preserving the forests of Ethiopia and similar areas.

Reference:

Hylander, K., Nemomissa, S., Delrue, J., and Enkosa, W. (2013). “Effects of Coffee Management on Deforestation Rates and Forest Integrity.” Conservation Biology, 27: 1031–1040. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12079

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