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Why You Should Drink Organic Coffee

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Why You Should Drink Organic Coffee

For most Americans, waking up with a fresh cup of coffee is the only way to get out of bed. But next to organic strawberries and organic cereal, you might be forgetting about pesticide-free coffee.  

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Recently, coffee has appeared on a number of lists for containing pesticides. Some groups and articles suggest agrochemicals used on stems and leaves could affect coffee beans, “in which case coffee beans could be carrying their residues." Meanwhile other studies find the high roasting temperatures eliminate most pesticide residues, although in one study “green, roasted and instant coffee samples” treated with insecticide directly on the leaves contained residues.

While the health risks on the consumer are likely minimal and still a matter of debate, there’s no question about the impacts of pesticides on the environment and farm workers.

Coffee is one of the largest and most important crops in the world, worth roughly $16.5 billion in the U.S. alone. The International Coffee Organization estimates there are nearly 26 million people employed in the coffee business across 52 countries. Next to Brazil and the European Union, the United States is one of the largest consumers of coffee and the largest market for organic coffee. Still, you might think organic coffee (farmed without the use of pesticides) would be close to conventional coffee in numbers. But organic coffee only accounts for 6.6 percent of the world’s harvested coffee.

It’s no wonder organic coffee hasn’t taken the coffee world over. In "Organic coffee: Why Latin America's farmers are abandoning it" Ezra Fieser reports that farmers can get roughly 485 pounds more coffee from one acre, applying 250 pounds of chemical fertilizer per acre. Compare this to 285 pounds on an organic farm. He adds, Latin American farmers had made the switch to organic crops but they couldn't sell their coffee at the higher price. "From Mexico to Costa Rica, at least 10 percent of growers [defected] in the past three years."

Growing conventional coffee will also be affected by climate change. According to the International Trade Centre, climate change will mean an increase in pests and diseases. This could mean a greater dependence on pesticides and possibly even more coffee grown under irrigation, which would mean water supplies would also suffer.

The use of pesticides continues to add to soil erosion and polluted waters from soil runoff. And there’s still another problem with pesticides. According to the IFC, it’s estimated that in Africa alone, “there could be as much as 50,000 tons of obsolete pesticides” stored in hazardous stockpiles. The problem with disposal of pesticide is difficult because it can cost $3,000 to $5,000 per ton to remove. But, because the materials are not all the same, there’s “no blanket solution.”

Although studies have been conflicted on pesticide residues in drinking coffee, there’s a bigger consensus when it comes to farmer safety. In a recent study, scientists surveyed a random sample of 81 coffee farmers in eastern Jamaica where coffee production employs “more than 50,000 people and contributes 7 percent of the island’s agricultural earnings.”

In the study 78 percent of the farmers experienced symptoms related to pesticide handling, including “dizziness, headaches, difficult breathing and tightness in the chest.” Much of this could be attributed to improper handling and little to no training on pesticide handling—a common problem in countries with no oversight or regulation. In four of the observation sessions, not a single farmer used protection like a facemask or rubber gloves. Battling pests like the coffee cherry borer and coffee rust is much easier if you have a toxic pesticide to kill them. Unfortunately a number of pesticides being used have been linked to animal and wildlife deaths and in some cases human deaths.

For millions of coffee aficionados, the coffee of choice comes from Starbucks. It’s true Starbucks is one of the largest purchasers of coffee. They have made it their mission to provide fairtrade coffee and report that 95.3 percent of their coffee is ethically sourced. Still, organic coffee is harder to come at a Starbucks because not only 1.1 percent of Starbucks’ coffee is organic.

All the types of coffee labels could make your head spin more than a quadruple shot espresso. There’s organic, fairtrade, shade-grown (which mean the coffee is grown under shade, signifying its commitment to the rainforest). Utz-certified coffee provides traceability programs and fair labor for farm workers and an "appropriate and modest use of fertilizers, pesticides, water and energy. Almost half of all fairtrade is certified organic as well. But on the issue of pesticides, if you want organic you’ll still want to verify the USDA organic label, as there are strict rules for any imports being labeled organic.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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