Coffee: A Bitter Delight

This discussion topic submitted by Todd Nadenichek ( at 11:59 am on 5/19/00. Additions were last made on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

Coffee is currently the second most valuable exported legal commodity on earth (after oil) and has had a tremendous effect on the development of the countries and cultures of Central and South America as producers, and Europe and North America as consumers (Global Exchange FAQ). Ecologically, this seemingly innocuous plant has more than made its mark. The cultivation of the plant has changed the landscape in many different regions of Central and South America. Deforestation and other early cultivation practices have hurt the land edaphically as well as removing all the traces of the biodiversity that might naturally slowly renew the land. Culturally, coffee replaced beer as the most popular beverage of most of Europe starting in the fifteenth century, causing a slight sobering effect on the populace, but encouraging an unprecedented degree of social vigor. Conversely, in most of the Central and South American countries situated ideally to grow coffee trees, the manner that the system of agriculture developed was one of extreme stratification and disparity of situation.

A Brief History of Coffee (with thanks to Pendergrast, The Coffee Universe, and others)

Tradition has it that coffee was originally discovered by goats in what is now Ethiopia. The frenetic antics of the goats attracted the attention of their keeper, a goat herder named Kaldi. The Ethiopians devised various ways to ingest the enervating plant, the most popular of which was in a liquid form. In the sixth century, the Ethiopians invaded and held Yemen for about fifty years and brought coffee with them. Sufi monks were some of the first to seriously adopt the practice of imbibing the drink as it made staying awake for midnight prayers easier. By the fifteenth century, Muslim pilgrims had carried the drink throughout the Islamic world, Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and North Africa. In the mean time, the first coffee houses were established so that all could participate in the new social activity. Another military conquest spread the beans through the Turkish Empire. The Turks closely guarded their lucrative monopoly, but that did not last. Early in the seventeenth century, seven fertile beans were smuggled to India by a Moslem pilgrim and later the Dutch managed to smuggle a live tree to Holland, and later transferred the plants to Java and other islands in the East Indies.

In 1605, Pope Clement VIII was asked to ban it, but tasting it, enjoyed it so much that he adopted it as a “‘truly Christian Beverage’” (Pendergrast). In the second half of that century, coffee gradually spread through Europe, to Italy and Britain and then from Turkey to France, where it became a national cultural addiction. Pendergrast quotes a French historian’s description of the advent of coffee, calling it “the auspicious revolution of the times, the great event which created new customs, and even modified human temperament” (Pendergrast 9). The last part of that references the effects of the popular switch from alcohol to the new coffee craze. The cafés that sprang up to meet this demand became centers of social interaction in a manner and to a degree unprecedented. Social barriers separating genders and classes were greatly relaxed, leading to levels of expression and social freedoms that contributed to great, and occasionally revolutionary, thoughts. Pendergrast, describing this phenomenon’s occurrence in Vienna, where coffee’s popularity was as widespread and pervasive as anywhere else in Europe, “Unlike rowdy beer halls, the cafés provided a place for lively conversation and mental concentration” (Pendergrast 10). The events leading to the Boston Tea Party made drinking coffee the patriotic duty of Americans.

The Dark Side of the Bean

Around this time industrialization began to create jobs in the cities of Europe and America and drew people from rural areas in which they lived as part of an agricultural community as farmers or artisans to urban centers in which they worked grueling hours in factories. Because of these hours, and the general conditions under which they lived, eating frequently became a luxury that could not often be afforded. Because coffee is warm and contains the stimulant caffeine, it provides a temporary feeling of nourishment that the industrial workers were not actually receiving.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, coffee production had established a firm foothold in the Caribbean colonies. As coffee is a very labor-intensive crop, it seemed natural to acquire more slaves to work the coffee plantations of San Domingo, as well as the sugar plantations on which they had long worked. By the middle of the nineteenth century, coffee was well on its way to become one of South America’s most widely cultivated crops. This process almost always involved various forms of slavery, debt servitude, and impressments of workers. In Brazil’s early history of coffee cultivation, it was cheaper to import new slaves than to provide living and working conditions that would provide enough for the laborers to live more than the seven year average (Pendergrast 22). When the British forced the close of the African slave trade, the native Indian populations were bribed, tricked, and forced into service on the coffee plantations.

The one area that this was not the case was Costa Rica. By the time that coffee cultivation was coming into vogue, the importation of slaves from Africa had been effectively stopped and there were very few indigenous people left in the area claimed by Costa Rica. Most had been successfully killed off by the original Spanish explorers or the diseases that accompanied them. This extreme shortage of workers shaped Costa Rica’s coffee industry into one of small family holdings. Because the owners of the land were the families that actually farmed it, “a relatively egalitarian national ethos developed” (Pendergrast 41). The conflict within Costa Rica was between the small growers and the owners of the mills that processed the coffee. Because of the importance of the miller’s position, they could set artificially low prices for the coffee, profiting greatly from selling the processed bean at normal market prices. While this was obviously not something that the farmers enjoyed, the Costa Rican government minimized the worst exploitation.

The Coffee Debate

The Coffee Debate is actually two debates, tenuously related. One issue is of environmental sustainability, the other primarily one of social equality. Both are well represented on the web, and both herald their minimal accomplishments for all to hear. The first is a physical problem with wide ranging effects, deeply influenced by social pressures; the second is an issue of social responsibility, emphasizing the inequality inherent in the current methods of coffee production and sales. Both seem to be generally disorganized in their campaigns and do not present anything that could be considered unified standards, widely accepted by the respective member groups. While the two efforts are not necessarily mutually exclusive, their points of emphasis are distinctly divergent.

The ecology folks are obviously concerned most about the ecological viability of the coffee production. They favor shade-grown coffee, as well as general agricultural practices that do not harm the environment. The first contention is the most recent evidence of a controversy as old as the cultivation of coffee in Central and South America. Coffee is a tree/shrub that originally, “naturally,” grows as part of the understory of a rainforest. Agricultural shade-grown coffee is generally grown under a canopy of other trees that are often of harvestable or economic interest separate from their role as shade for the coffee crop. An alternate method of producing coffee consists of planting coffee in tight rows, with no natural or artificial barrier from the sun. As coffee is not genetically prepared for complete sun exposure, the plants over-produce the fruit, the binary seed of which is the coffee bean. Early in Brazil’s coffee history, this method was used extensively in the Rio region, to such an extent that the area was abandoned and laid depleted and fallow, as coffee moved south and west to the plateaus of São Paulo. The former method is commonly called the traditional method, though both methods seem to have been in wide use for several centuries. The latter, generally scorned by aesthetes because the “cup,” a measure of general taste, is thought to be hurt by rapid growth and improved by shade.

The primary ecological advantages to shade-grown coffee are that the leaves and general detritus of the shade trees provide a nourishing mulch for the greedy coffee trees and that the trees serve as havens of biodiversity. The website of the ECO-OK Program (a pro-shade certification program backed by the Rainforest Alliance) describes the issue of biodiversity stating, “scientists . . . have surveyed mammals, arthropods and insects in coffee farms that are managed in different ways” and found that “traditional shaded farms host high levels of biodiversity; the new ‘full-sun’ farms are ‘biological deserts’ with few signs of life” (ECO-OK). While the site mentions various forms of indigenous animals that shade-grown farms harbor and protect, the emphasis is clearly on preserving the “250 species of birds that breed mainly in the temperate region of North America and winter mainly in the tropics.” Another important player is the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which, according to ECO-OK, “has been a leader in researching the bird/coffee connection and raising public awareness.” Together, they have crusaded for shade-grown coffee to protect the numerous bird species.

Other ecologists emphasize the need for more general ecologically sound agricultural practices. These include, but are not limited to, minimizing and eliminating chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers; and completing many of the processing, depulping (separating the bean from its mucilaginous container), and disposing of the greater portion of the cherry that is not the bean in ecologically friendly ways. Many of these processes can be accomplished using completely natural methods. The most common coffee parasite, the dreaded coffee borer, can be controlled with the introduction of a tiny African parasitic wasp, and using a lime solution, coffee can be depulped virtually without water (Pendergrast 398). The primary impediment a farm faces in attempting to become a certified organic producer is the certification process. Often costing upwards of US$30,000, the Organic Crop Improvement Association process requires detailed geologic surveys and exhaustive surveys, which originally were occasionally only offered in English (Pendergrast 397).

The social equality folks are most concerned with the plight of the workers who actually go out and harvest between one and two hundred pounds of coffee a day and generally receive a wage that is less than the legal minimum wage. While this is not true for all of the “20 million farmers and coffee workers in over 70 countries,” that cites as being “involved in producing coffee around the world,” it is certainly not uncommon, and may be true in the majority of the cases. is allied with TransFair USA, a widely known certification organization for Fair Trade and is a model of other organizations and sites that focus on the social implications of the coffee industry. About 85% of Fair Trade Certified coffee is shade grown and either passive or certified organic.

The Dregs

Much of the inequality in the current coffee production process can be directly related to the history of coffee. The modern peasants who work the coffee groves are the descendants of earlier laborers. Conditions have improved, in that they are no longer legally bound to the land or those who own it. Now, while they are free to choose not to work, they are tied to the coffee plantations economically.

In the same way, the ecologically damaging processes used in the production of coffee can be seen to be a direct result of the Western, industrialized countries insatiable desire for coffee, and general nonchalance about the relative grade of the coffee itself and the inevitably damaging effects that deforestation and ecological apathy will have for the future.

Works Consulted

“coffee” The Columbia Encyclopedia. Ithaca: Columbia UP.

“coffee” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. [Accessed 15 May 2000].

Coffee Contact. [Accessed 15 May 2000]

The Eco-OK Coffee Conservation Project. [Accessed 15 May 2000]

The Global Economy Fair Trade Coffee Campaign. [Accessed 15 May 2000]

Hull, Jennifer Bingham. “Can Coffee Drinkers Save the Rainforest?” Atlantic Monthly, August


Kricher, John. A Neotropical Companion. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.

Maxwell House Online: Coffee School: What is Coffee? [Accessed 15 May 2000]

Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds. New York: Basic, 1999.

SCAA: Resources. [Accessed 15 May 2000]

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. [Accessed 15 May 2000]

Transfair USA: Fair Trade Coffee. [Accessed 15 May 2000]

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