Guest Blog – Think before you drink (coffee) by Emma Websdale

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEmma Websdale is a Conservation Biologist and Writer. Working as the Communications Support Officer for The Wildlife Trusts, she is particularly motivated in engaging younger audiences, helping them make sure that nature doesn’t drop off their agenda.  




After spending the day of 9 December stewarding people to march and rally for nature in Westminster (alongside The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, The League Against Cruel Sports and Mark Avery) – I was left feeling rather proud. Not only was I part of it, but also I witnessed the faces of many people filled with pride. For many of them there that Tuesday was the first time they’d even spoken to an MP, or had taken a stand for nature altogether. I was proud of them all and it made me smile relentlessly.

Now, hopefully, you’ll appreciate my frustration at what happened next. Travelling home after the busy day on an over-packed train to Newark, I read something that temporarily put out my fire – page 49 of the November issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine. The article was about coffee and the implications it was having on the rainforest.

I was already aware of the destructive processes inflicted on the rainforest to feed our appetites for coffee, tea, palm oil and tobacco (alongside many other products)… but it was a stand-alone figure that really said it all; 6.45cm2 – ‘roughly the amount of rainforest that is chopped down for every cup of coffee consumed’. What? Just for one cup of coffee? I guessed the area of 6.45 cm2 with my hands, measuring it out in front of me, and then tripled that distance to reflect the three cups of coffee I’d consumed that day. Knowing I had removed that much of the rainforest in just one day was appalling. I then pictured this distance increasing by seven to cater for a week’s worth of coffee drinking, and then multiplied this by four to reflect the month, and then again by twelve to cover off the year’s worth.

Now according to East Coast Midlands website, the train carriage was 27 meters, or 2,700cm long. My yearly coffee consumption had totalled to 6,501cm2 – a centimetre-wide strip stretching for over two and a half carriages. The thought of losing that much rainforest so I could luxuriate in a quick caffeine fix disgusted me. And that was in just a year. And to be honest, that size was easily an underestimation as some days I could easily drink up to seven cups of coffee. It really opened my eyes to a never-ending battle. Yes, I’d helped people take action for nature that day, but here I also was personally undoing and removing the rainforest ecosystem. The same ecosystem that supports over 50% of the Earth’s plants and animals. I felt extremely irritated and embarrassed.

Admittedly, I’ve always been conscious about where my coffee comes from – and have always tried to ensure that the familiar green frog which indicates ‘rainforest alliance certified’ was on my coffee cup – but little did I know, that the frog icon didn’t necessarily guarantee that the coffee had been grown in the best way possible for the environment. Now, don’t get me wrong – to consume rainforest alliance products isn’t all that bad – the non-profit organisation does a great job in working with farmers and foresters to cultivate their crops in a more environmentally-friendly way, but in my own mind, this was no longer enough. I now wanted to go for the even better stuff – BBC Wildlife recommended coffee that had ‘been grown organically and under shade’.

This means that Coffee (Coffea sp.) – a small understory tree or shrub – has been grown amongst forest trees, in the shade. A once common tradition, growing coffee under shade was proven to discourage weed growth, protect the crop from frost, and most importantly, help increase the number of pollinators which resulted in better fruit set. So why are we no longer doing it?

Photo: Jason Walsh from Seattle (IMG_1926.JPG) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Jason Walsh from Seattle (IMG_1926.JPG) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Like everything else in the world, our insatiable demands for products including caffeine are at an explosive amount. This means that the long-time taken for the coffee to ripen under shaded canopy was no longer meeting demands. Instead, in order to produce faster, higher yields, many coffee plantations began to grow coffee in sunnier conditions – where trees were chopped down to reduce shade. As a result, we get coffee in higher and faster amounts, but also, many studies have proven that biodiversity has declined within these areas.

Fortunately, suppliers that are more environmentally conscious and switched on are still encouraging these older traditions and a few are mentioned in the article – Marley Coffee, Puro Coffee, Bird & Wild and Cafeology – all suppliers that are ‘wildlife-friendly’.

A tip from me after researching all of the different coffee-growing techniques is to really push and look for ‘rustic shade-grown’ coffee. This means that the coffee has been grown on a small family farm, in the existing forest with little alteration of native vegetation. As a result, tree species are kept diverse, which on average, provides more habitats for birds, supporting over 25 species. Even better, protecting these forest-like conditions provides soil protection, erosion control, carbon sequestration, natural pest control, and improved pollination, making such systems vital for conservation initiatives. I feel much happier with that compared to the two and a half train carriages I was previously removing.

My initial irritation at the article had now turned to positivity. Yes – fighting for the environment is an extremely complicated dilemma. Just when you think you’re doing one thing right you’re soon confronted by an action that is negatively influencing the natural world – whether it be where your clothes, food or energy comes from. But, just remember – there will always be ethical suppliers and thinkers way ahead of the game – setting good examples and principles to not only preserve our remaining biodiversity but to also enhance it. All you need to do is stop and think a little more about it. Thanks to educational resources including BBC Wildlife and clearer packaging guidelines, it’s getting easier for us to be more environmentally aware.

I know when I next crave a dose of caffeine; I will stop and question whether I even need it altogether.


Note added by Mark: for another Guest Blog on sustainable coffee see this one by Derek Thomas from May this year.


32 Replies to “Guest Blog – Think before you drink (coffee) by Emma Websdale”

  1. Good for you Emma, and I’ll be drinking shade grown from now on.

    But it all goes to show that unless most people are prepared to ‘live in a hole in the ground and eat grass’, reducing consumption (while it should be our top priority) will only take us so far. We need to reduce the size of the human population, especially in countries like ours which consume so much per capita. Less than two children per couple anyone? And why won’t any of the green organisations talk about this? As it’s a ‘supertanker’ of a problem (7 miles needed to change direction) we need to start now.

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  3. Hi Emma – interesting post, thanks for sharing. I’ve heard this figure (and similar ones) of ‘roughly the amount of rainforest that is chopped down for every cup of coffee consumed’ from a number of sources and a while ago I tried to track down the origin of it. The earliest mention I could find was on a Canadian conservation site, but there was no source given for the figure.

    I suspect that it has little basis in fact because coffee is a perennial crop that, even after the lifespan of the bushes, can be re-planted in the same area. So it doesn’t require new rainforest to be cut down for each cup of coffee – you get many cups of coffee from each unit area.

    It’s possible that the figure is referring to new coffee plantations that are being formed and global coffee consumption is certainly increasing year-on-year, but this is a different argument to saying x amount of rainforest is destroyed every time you consume a cup of coffee. As a professional scientist it does concern me when “facts” are not evidence based and are repeated uncritically, for example Einstein’s (in)famous quote about honeybees which (a) is not true; and (b) he didn’t say.

    Your point about shade coffee versus non-shade coffee is well made and I’m trying to buy it when I can. This old blog post of mine might interest you:

    My New Year’s resolution it to cut down my (excessive) coffee intake, for health rather as much as environmental reasons.

    One final point: it’s interesting that we use these kinds of arguments about habitat destruction for crops coming from the developing world, as coffee largely does, but don’t consider our own backyard. How many of us think about the >95% of fenland that was drained in East Anglia so that we can enjoy the national British vegetable of potatoes?

    Best wishes,


    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for your comments and sending the link to your blog post – some interesting (and scary) stats in there too! Your right in completely shining the light on the natural pollinators in the world -without them we wouldn’t have such luxuries such as coffee, tea, cereals etc. And so often, this fact goes ignored and we keep replacing the habitats of the species that we need for pollination alongside increasingly threatening their survival with chemicals etc. Have you watched the documentary The Vanishing of the Bees?

      I always find it interesting looking at our country and the damages we’ve caused ourselves too. I always ponder, what’s worse? Removing and changing landscapes in our own country and losing our native natural heritage or changing the landscapes of others AND depending heavily on fossil fuels to transport these crops from country to country. It’s a shame that most of us have lost the ability to produce things on a local, community level; where items such as meat and coffee which were once a one-off luxury.

  4. M Parry – very well said.

    There’s also the issue of poverty here. How can people slogging away on the minimum wage jobs in this country possibly afford to buy shade grown coffee? Or any organic or ethical food? Already there are hundreds of thousands in Britain forced to beg charity from food-banks!

    This is the problem with “ethical consumerism”. There’s a strong risk that organic and ethical food and drink becomes just another niche product to help the consciences of the better off who can afford such things as opposed to the poor masses who have to make do with the industrial products that agribusiness churns out, piles high and sells cheap.

    I appreciate the good intentions behind this piece, but surely it’s simply rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic? Only major structural and systemic change is genuinely going to start resolving the massive global ecological and social inequities we face.

    1. Hello Serena,

      Thanks for your comments. I completely agree with you – we do need major structural and systemic changes to make a genuine long-term change. But, I also feel that ethical consumption should be encouraged and enhanced whenever possible. Sadly, a lot of people are clueless about where most of their food and drink comes from. Take tuna for example – not much of the population that consumes it even understands how they are killed, that some species are endangered or the impacts of by-catch. It’s only fair to educate consumers on the truth behind their choices, and it is these consumers that have an immense power to make a difference. The more people that consume, fair-trade, ethical and sustainable brands and products, the more competitive the market gets and the more likely the prices will fall. Take organic milk for example – growing up in a working class family, we could never afford it. Or free-range eggs for that matter. However both, can now be purchased for £1.00. Buying locally produced food can re-connect the consumer with our food production system, as it allows them to feel like they are making a difference in boosting their local economy and benefiting the local
      environment. It makes sense to shine the light on the producers and retailers that have put more time and energy on reducing their environmental impact.

  5. After various health issues I now only drink tap water, healthy and guilt free. It is a very liberating experience when you find that you don’t need anything else. For me, leading a low impact life and keeping things simple is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

    1. Well very inspirational Rob! I (kinda) feel the same no longer eating meat. You just come to terms with the fact that you don’t need it!

  6. Blimey.
    Gets me thinking I’ve been responsible for quite a lot of rainforest destruction mesel over the years.
    I’ve certainly been a bit of a coffee monster over the years.

    Re the issue of human population mentioned above in a comment and how we “need to reduce it” I know many people (both famous (David Attenborough to name but one) and less so) think this is the answer.

    Me? I’m not convinced it a) is … and even if it was… b) can be done without resorting to an authoritarian approach, tried & failed n other nations, one in particular.

    I think it is far more complicated than simply there are too many humans on the planet. I don’t think (and nor do many others) thats the biggest concern.
    The massively unequal distribution of wealth across the world is the real issue. .. and how we begin to deal with that. .. kerreist knows.
    All a bit depressing really.
    I think I’ll put the kettle on and have a think over a mug of warm water, not a coffee.

      1. Hi Filbert,

        Of course I care about the cotton industry- not just its environment impact but also its negative ties with child labor. I’ve also written about this subject and can ensure you that any cotton I buy is both fairtrade and organic.

        1. A nice response, but actually even fairtrade organic cotton has massive impacts because of its ‘thirst’. Eurojersey (who support World Land Trust, along with the Puro Coffee Emma mentioned), have made very strong arguments in favour of synthetic fabrics being more environmentally friendly. As always it’s very complicated. But one thing is certain to me, too many people, and too much consumerism. And the demand for ‘economic growth’ in the run up to an election is even more depressing. Incidentally, Puro Coffee is always available for a free tasting on the WLT stand at the BirdFair. And it is providing over £100,000 a year for conservation, for buying forests. And like many the other organic fair trade coffee, a great taste! There’s a good choice out there

  7. An excellent article Emma and very well written. I will be visiting our Guatemalan producer, Guaya’b on 14 January 2015.

    My company Cafeology have been working alongside the RSPB and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to develop Bird Friendly coffee here in the UK. It is great to see that interest is building on this truly ethical way of growing coffee. We of course realise that it can’t just be the ethics behind the coffee, it has to taste great too.

    I shall be writing a blog and posting photos on our website and social media pages whilst I’m away. One thing for sure, it won’t be as well constructed as your article!

    Keep up the great work and all the best for 2015

    1. Bryan – thanks for your encouraging words. It’s great to hear that you are looking at ethical solutions here in the UK – I look forward to seeing the outcome. More than happy to help write content for your blog in the future!

  8. Hi Emma – Thanks for your thought provoking blog pot.

    This also deeply concerned me being an avid coffee fan so I decided to do some math. I don’t have access to the article but I did find that it was based on 30k cups drank per second.

    This gives

    30k * 60s * 60m * 24h * 365d = 950 billion cups a year @ 6.45cm^2 per cup /10k (m^2) / 1,000,000 (km^2)

    Total area 610.22km²

    Which certainly seems feasible.

  9. Nice blog Emma. Shade-grown coffee is MUCH better for birds than non-shade (essentially a monoculture). However, I do agree with Jeff’s point, and would add that organic shade-grown coffee plantations are almost as far removed from rainforest habitat for general biodiversity. There maybe only 3 species of shade tree, and they might not even be native eg bananas are commonly used, but fortunately they may also provide good food for many birds! Don’t forget there’s Bird Friendly Coffee certification

    There’s a few photos of a big shade-coffee producer in Colombia here . It’s a beautiful place and they have over 122 species of birds recorded (probably quite a few more). I’m happy to drink coffee from a large shade-grown plantation, they provide decent jobs with social security etc, though I prefer to help the small producers if I can.

    1. Thanks Rob! You’ve nicely illustrated an alternative to intensive farmed coffee, where the producers are not only growing coffee to benefit us, but also wildlife! Super!

  10. Thanks for this…I frequently ask about the certification of coffee..this something else to ask about…particularly of speciality coffee shops.
    Further to discussion on land use and food production…it would help if more people grew even just a bit of their own food and relocalising food production became a recognised objective of society. I know full well this is easier said than done in our current lifestyles but it is also therapeutic!

  11. Yes a nice piece and it points out that one has to be very careful when choosing coffee. However, there is shade and shade! A few banana trees could mean shade, but this is go little value and doesn’t compare to that required by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bird Friendly certification. Bird Friendly is THE gold standard coffee certification as far as being good for the environment. A prerequisite of Bird Friendly is that the arabica coffee should be certified 100% organic. This is not required by many other certifications. Check out the small print on Rainforest Alliance little green frog and you will see that they only guarantee that the coffee is 30% organic. The shade required to pass the stringent certification requirements can also be found on the website above.

    The Bird Friendly coffee certification is the result of decades of research by the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Centre (SMBC) and the coffee is widely available in the US and Canada. It is also very popular in Japan and is slowly being made available in the UK. We are hoping that 2015 will see many more outlets offering it.

    In the list of suppliers of ‘environmentally friendly’ coffee mentioned in this blog, only @Cafeology and @BirdandWild offer Bird Friendly coffee. It is also available via @AndronicasUK who also sell it in Harrods.

    It should be pointed out that the SMBC is a non-profit NGO based in the National Zoo in Washington DC and that I am its UK Representative, trying to promote the message of Bird Friendly coffee in the UK (also for non-profit!).

    As Mark suggests, you may wish to read the guest blog I wrote for this site in May of this year.

  12. My understanding is that there are two main types of coffee which are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. Arabica prefers to be grown in shade and in higher regions. Coffea canephora also known as robusta coffee will grow in full sun and produces a heavier crop but it has a much more bitter taste than Arabica. I asked a local specialist coffee shop in Carlisle if they were selling the same type of bird friendly coffee as the RSPB sells and was told that they source all of their own coffee and only buy C. Arabica because the other type is too bitter.

    I have checked out packets in supermarkets and most of the ready ground or full bean coffee is labelled Arabica. I understand that the cheaper processed coffee granules or powders contains a large proportion of C. canephora. Italian expresso coffees also apparently contains a large proportion of C.canephora because bitterness is a desirable trait .
    Therefore as a start I believe that buying higher end premier coffees in beans or ground forms can only be beneficial to wildlife. Avoid buying these granulated coffees especially the cheapest brands. If possible look for the word Arabica on the packets.

    The terms Organic and Fair Trade bear no direct link to wildlife friendly or shade grown plantations, but the chances are that these will be purchased from smaller farms which are more likely to be using traditional methods of growing.
    The following is a fantastic initiative that benefits local people and wildlife and produces arguably the best coffee in the world :
    Monteverde Coffee, Costa Rica
    Monteverde Coffee Tour

  13. I’d strongly recommend a Lynx Edicions book called ‘Farmland Birds Across the World’ which includes a very good account of coffee growing and the relative impacts/benefits of shade grown vs intensified sun grown coffee. I’d hope that to Fairtrade we could add shade grown – I suspect the two actually go together a lot of the time.

    I’ve been in areas in W Africa where cacao and coffee are the only cash crops and the smallholders growing them are a good deal poorer than anyone drinking their product in the first world – and often the biggest need for cash rather than subsistence is to be able to afford to send their children to school.

  14. “… why won’t any of the green organisations talk about this?”

    Maybe because it is considered a misanthropic step too far – possibly because of a resonance with eugenics and “Blut und Boden”. But it doesn’t stop the criticism of Borlaug although I don’t recall such directed at Fleming.

    1. Don’t think so Mr/Ms Cobb.

      By my observation the reasons most green organisations won’t talk about population reduction, is firstly, because they have become the preserve of the liberal left who prefer to concentrate on inequalities between humans alone and hope to use green issues and the ecological crisis as leverage to advance human equality.

      The second reason green orgs avoid the population issue is because most of the vested ideological interests (as well as the Left for the reason given above) are in favour of increasing human population and these are too powerful to over-ride. Business wish to increase human population for a larger pool of workers to choose from, keeping wages low, as well as to provide an ever-growing pool of consumers for products. Most religious groups wish to increase human population, both for their own internal ideology, eg anti-contraceptive, or in order to “bring more souls into the world”.

      The fact is that there are two forces which are *both* driving ecological destruction equally: 1. Human population increasing mouths to feed, clothe, house, employ, entertain and all the other things each of us want and require at least a minimum of, and 2. Human inequalities and the poverty and ignorance caused on the one hand and the greed and excessive consumption on the other.

      Both these forces need to be addressed if we are to have a hope of maintaining habitats, species and a liveable environment into the future.

      1. “Liberal left”.
        I *think* that might be me.

        “Both driving ecological destruction equally”.
        The scientist in me doesn’t understand this definite quantification.

        1. Count me in the liberal left as well then. We all know what is meant by “population control” – it refers of course to Johnny Foreignor in places like Africa having all those babies with no regard to protecting those nice places we saw on that David Attenborough show. Because its those countries that have the highest birth rates. But we can wrap that up by saying “well we do consume too much.” Of course we do, this year each one of us will consume more than a family of TEN from the poorest parts of the world. Well if you want the population reduced what do you intend to do to reduce your consumption? Sell your car, turn the heating off, buy less clothes, eat less? Or maybe just buy fairtrade coffee? It really isn’t going to happen is it? Less children is a luxury afforded by the rich only, as can be seen in the population growth rates of most developed countries. Environmental protection is a similar luxury. I suppose we could try to make everyone in the world rich ( or equally wealthy with us at least) . Or shall we just dish out condoms and continue to plunder the world for our own satisfaction? Because that is what would happen. Not one of you callers for population control is actually going to do anything to change your lifestyles. The original post in this blog is concerned wwith the protection of the rain forest. How dare we be so arrogant, 99.99% of our own natural forest went years ago. Bah humbug. Happy New Year anyway.

  15. I think population is a bit of a red herring. See Hans Rosling on TED about the peaking of population growth and the effect of us all living longer. The best ways to help are things we are already doing quite effectively, allowing women contraceptive choice and basic health care to ensure their children thrive. HR also talks eloquently about relative consumption. This info about coffee was new to me, though, and not good news 🙁

  16. Fertility rates are declining all over the globe as humanity develops

    There are many more useful – and sensible – things to do before worrying about the type of coffee you’re drinking.

    A rather typical middle class conservationist approach: don’t actually change much about how you live and affect the planet, but watch which brand of coffee you buy.

  17. I decided to try to find shade grown too and i did, but i can’t find decaff shade grown….. I don’t drink much coffee to be honest and i can make a tea bag last for several cups but it is sobering to think how much damage our favourite drinks have on the rainforests. I’m writing a novel and all the characters drink homemade herbal teas, unfortunately I’ve not got myself to that stage yet (and my characters only do so because it’s set in the future and the global economy has collapsed).

    Actually I’ve just had an idea for a blog post of my own…… and I’ll link to yours here too….

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