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.
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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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Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>