Annals of the Environment: Breakfast in the Shade

by Clement Kent

Sometimes in the summer we eat outside: on the deck in the cool shade of our wisteria, or next to the pond, shaded by a Kobus magnolia. Breakfast in the shade: a cup of coffee (a mug of cocoa for our daughter), bananas, some oranges or grapefruit, some cut flowers in a vase on the table. What bliss!

Our breakfast in the shade could be part of an ecological and environmental disaster in the tropics, or part of the solution - depending on the horticultural methods used to grow the coffee and cocoa beans, the bananas and citrus fruits, the flowers in the vase. A decade ago there wouldnít have been much the average reader could do to swing the balance between destruction and reconstruction, but there now is. This article gives you a place to start!


Coffee, Birds in the Shade, and Fair Trade

Letís begin with that cup of coffee, shall we? Not long ago we had an excellent dinner with some friends from the Hort: Barry, David, and Michel. The company was great, and the restaurant good: Domani on Roncesvalles. Before the dinner weíd been next door in the cafť called Alternative Grounds where the coffee beans for sale all bear the "Fair Trade" label.

Fair Trade coffee is sold under the supervision of the world-wide Fair Trade movement, which certifies individual small producers as meeting minimum labour and environmental standards. In return, producers are guaranteed a minimum wholesale price which enables them to live better and promote Fair Tradeís methods to fellow growers. The Costa Rican "Viennese Roast" we bought that night is truly delicious coffee. It smells wonderful and has a delectable mild, full flavor that I thought you could only get in Europe. Part of the difference is that Fair Trade coffee beans are pure arabica coffee. The more productive but less refined robusta varieties are often sold as part of coffee mixes in North America to keep the price down, but (surprise!) such mixes donít taste as good. Also, Fair Trade beans are more likely to be shade-grown, which improves flavour.

Shade-grown coffee bushes are cultivated under a light shade from other crops (such as bananas) or even better under native trees. The type of shade makes a great difference both to the coffee and to migratory bird populations. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has studied the effect of different kinds of shading trees and found that in Latin America native trees of the genus Inga should be used for a variety of reasons:

Many of our favorite summer birds winter in Latin America and require forest resources there during the winter to survive. A field of sun-grown coffee is a desert to them, but they can find quite a bit of shelter and food in a shade-grown coffee plantation. Populations of both the Baltimore Oriole and the Scarlet Tanager have been declining in North America and it is thought the switch to sun-grown coffee (as well as other forest destruction) in the south is a large part of that decline. Save Our Orioles - Drink Shady Coffee? As a slogan it may need some work!

The Smithsonian certifies coffee produced in ways that help protect bird habitat. This is often not the same growers as those certified by Fair Trade, as the two groups are focussed on different goals. Nevertheless, coffee from either source is sure to be kinder to birds and people than uncertified coffee.

A third kind of certification is as Organic produce. We are more familiar with this since we have a history with it here in Canada. Some Fair Trade producers are not fully organic, nor do organic producers necessarily follow the Smithsonian principles of preserving bird habitat. Nonetheless, all three types are worth supporting with your shopping dollars, and itís not too hard to do these days. Just looking at shops carrying Fair Trade coffee in downtown Toronto west of Yonge, I counted more than two dozen . Your shopping dollars mean a lot: Fair Trade calls intelligent shopping for their products a "buy-cott", and itís a more positive experience for all concerned than the older, more negative approach of boycotting goods produced in unsound ways.

As an example of what "buycott" pressure can do, letís look at Starbucks. In 1994, their position was:

"Countries like Indonesia and Ethiopia use traditional organic methods by default; they've never heard of chemical alteration," contends Scott Price, coffee specialist at the Seattle-based Starbucks coffee retail chain. The largest such chain in the U.S., Starbucks is not planning to go organic. "Farmers there don't have the money to pay for certification, plus, they don't see any benefit," explains Price.

Fast-forward to 2000. Starbucks is selling "shade-grown" coffee beans in its stores around the world, and actively marketing Fair Trade coffees. During the intervening 6 years, they realized their position on organic coffee was indefensible; coffee is in fact the 3rd most heavily sprayed crop in the world.

When poor farmers can at last make a decent living through alliances with Fair Trade groups, when the needs of migratory birds and the health of farm workers can all be protected simply by where you buy your coffee, I think we begin to see the glimmering of hope in the future of horticulture. What a difference you can make by what you buy!


A Mug of Cocoa in the shade

Cocoa is made from the tropical Amazonian tree Theobroma cacao, which translates most appropriately: "Cacao, food of the gods". Like the coffee bush, the cacao tree is an understory plant naturally adapted to growing in tropical dappled shade. If only the temperatures were more welcoming, Iím sure our shady downtown gardens would all be graced by cacao and coffee trees.

Cacao producers have many of the same problems as coffee growers. Intensively managed estates using high fertilizer and pesticide inputs can produce for a short time at higher yields and lower per-kilo costs, but are very vulnerable to fluctuations in international prices for cacao and pesticides. When Asian currencies collapsed, inputs became costly and market prices for cacao dropped. Intensively managed plantations growing in full sun became disaster areas as pests and diseases ran rampant. Many large estates have now switched to producing palm oil.

In Costa Ricaís Talamanca district, cacao is grown in shaded plantations which often qualify for organic status, and a market now has been created for organic chocolate bars made from these farmersí cacao. The district is rich in national parks, but between the parks much of the forest has been cut and replaced by banana plantations or pasture land. The Nature Conservancy is working with the native peoples and farmers of Talamanca to find farming styles that will increase incomes but also provide shaded forest habitat corridors to connect up the national parks. Organic chocolate is one such use; ecotourism is another. Cacao plantations can be excellent places for birdwatching. Surveys done in 1997 showed higher abundances and diversities of both native and migrant birds in shade-grown cacao plantations than in other habitats. Plans are afoot to allow farmers to benefit from bird-watching tours conducted on their properties. Since I love both chocolate and birds, this is certainly one ecotourism activity I hope to follow up on!

So, once again dear Reader, I ask you: donít you think itís wonderful the progress which is being made? Wouldnít you be willing to look around a bit to support the farmers and conservationists who are working so hard to find ecologically sustainable ways to grow cacao? Alternative Grounds carries fair trade organic chocolate bars made by Green & Blackís. Cloud Nine is another manufacturer you can look for. Newmanís Own Organics supplies shade-grown cocoa products across the U.S., and a major German producer of organic food, Rapunzel now has a US distribution arm. Oxfam now labels a number of products with their Fair Trade mark, including organic cocoas and chocolates; most are only available in the UK but some can be found in Canada.

One final note, and then I must really go have some chocolate. Many North American suppliers of organic chocolate products get their raw materials from the Organic Commodity Project, a wholesaler which fills a niche for cacao somewhat like FairTrade does for coffee. I was interested to find this terse note at the website of the MacArthur Foundation (donors of the famous "genius" grants):

Organic Commodity Project, Cambridge, Massachusetts - $1,000,000 to increase the number and capacity of organic chocolate producers and to expand the organic chocolate market.

The foundation has a program specifically oriented towards "Ecosystems Conservation and Policy". Iím delighted with their unconventional granting approach, and intend to rush to the cupboard and support it with a dark, fragrant, semisweet bar...

Well, Iíve managed to get through the first two items on our breakfast table in the shade, and the article has already gone on much too long. Tune in next time for "Bananas and Flowers, or, Fumigation for the Nation".



Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t