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The Buzz on Organic Coffee

What's the difference between organic coffee and fair trade coffee?

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Organic coffee - what are the benefits?

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Why organic coffee? You can have my Folger's Instant when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

One good reason for organic coffee: it avoids the intensive use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that are common in the commercial coffee industry. According to the Pesticide Action Network and other researchers, industrial coffee plantations require immense amounts of chemicals, in part because these growers have removed the forest canopy.

Who needs a forest canopy to grow coffee beans?

Coffee plants evolved under a canopy of larger trees, and traditional coffee plantations kept these trees, but newer coffee plantations often grow hybrid strains of coffee that need more chemical fertilizers and pesticides but less shade -- so the larger trees are removed, along with all other remnants of the tropical forest. This, of course, eliminates the homes of countless birds, tropical butterflies and other animals and plants.

Is that what people mean by shade-grown coffee?

Yes -- in addition to shade-grown coffee, some coffee aficionados, like the folks at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, speak of "bird-friendly coffee," grown on plantations that leave forest cover for birds, many of which are common, "backyard" North American species of birds that migrate to the tropics for the winter. But in addition to the environmental aspect of coffee growing, there's a health issue as well.

Uh-oh. Here we go again with another health scare.

Afraid so -- hundreds of cases of coffee worker poisonings have been documented, and protective gear needed to safely apply chemicals often goes unused. Additionally, the heavy use of nitrate fertilizers has contaminated drinking water supplies in many coffee-growing regions. There's also some controversy over how healthy industrial coffee is for the drinker (i.e., you). Some researchers have found that most pesticides are burned off during the roasting of coffee beans, but other researchers disagree.

Is fair-trade coffee any better?

In some ways, yes -- fair trade coffee is grown in safer, more sustainable conditions by workers who are paid a living wage. Other fair trade products -- chocolate, fruits and vegetables -- are also produced under safer, healthier and more equitable conditions. But fair trade coffee isn't necessarily organic coffee, and vice-versa. Check the label if you're shopping for coffee that's both fair trade and organic.

OK, I'm convinced. Where can I find organic coffee and fair trade coffee?

These days, just about everywhere. Most grocers carry both organic coffee and fair trade coffee. Even retailers like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts are selling organic and/or fair trade coffee. To find out which brands are best, check out the review of organic and fair trade coffee at Consumer Reports. In addition to these coffees, there are other ways to green-up your morning cup o' joe.

What else can coffee lovers do to go green?

Try reusing a coffee cup or travel mug instead of using a new cup every time to buy a cup at your favorite cafe. Also, coffee makers with a reusable filter will save on coffee filters. And finally, coffee grounds make a great fertilizer for compost, outdoor gardens or indoor houseplants.
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