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Coffee Explained

January 12, 2009

America may or may not run on Dunkin’, but the world sure runs on coffee—coffee is the second most valuable legal export in the world (oil is the first). And soon, our cars may be running on coffee as well. Scientists from the University of Nevada, Reno recently discovered that coffee grounds are very oily, so oily in fact, that used coffee grounds can be turned into diesel fuel very easily (if you know how to do that kind of thing). The fuel would be cheap—the scientists think it could be made for a dollar a gallon—and, get this, the exhaust would smell like coffee. But there’s one problem with this scheme: Even though we drink more than 400 billion cups of coffee each year, all of the coffee grounds in the world would produce less than 1% of the diesel fuel used in the U.S. each year.   

Fascinating, eh? Now, onto the important stuff: where does coffee come from and what’s all the hullabaloo about shade-grown coffee?

Coffee was discovered by goats.

One day in 800 A.D., an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi watched his unusually hyperactive goats eat the red berries off the nearby coffee shrubs. Curious, and most likely bored, the gutsy goatherd decided to try some of the berries himself. Soon, he was buzzing from one shrub to the next to collect more berries.

Kaldi shared his discovery with some monks who boiled the berries to make a drink, but it wasn’t until 1000 A.D. when a trader brought the beans to what is now Yemen, that the beans were roasted before being brewed into beverage-form. Coffee didn’t spread to the rest of the world until the 1600s, when, through thievery, piracy, and good old-fashioned smuggling, coffee trees began to spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Today, this region grows more than two-thirds of the world’s coffee using traditional and “technified” coffee farms.

A traditional coffee farm is set up like a forest. Tall hardwood trees act as the forest canopy, fruit trees like avocado, banana, citrus and palm trees make up the middle layer and the relatively short coffee trees hide under all the rest. The mixture of trees provides the coffee farmer with food and alternative sources of income. Plus, this so-called pseudo-forest takes care of itself. Leaves that fall to the ground replenish nutrients in the soil, strong roots protect the soil from erosion and loads of insects control the fungi and diseases that typically threaten coffee trees.

The pseudo-forest has another benefit: birds, bugs and trees like it. In fact, 16 of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots just happen to be in major coffee-growing areas. Within one tree in a traditional coffee farm, scientists found 27 species of ants and 126 species of beetles. In a single coffee farm, researchers have counted more than 40 species of trees and at least 180 species of birds (most of them, migratory birds that breed in the Eastern U.S. and Canada).

Technified coffee farms aren’t nearly as diverse as traditional farms. Driven by the pressure to produce more coffee and the fear of a fungus known as coffee leaf rust, some coffee farmers have moved their crops from the shady pseudo-forest to wide-open sunny fields. The coffee trees didn’t get leaf rust—neither did the trees that remained in the forest system—and yields increased. But, sun-grown coffee hasn’t exactly been successful. (Sound familiar?) Without the forest ecosystem, coffee trees require fertilizers and chemical pesticides. The soil erodes easily, chemical fertilizers and pesticides pollute the water and the plants live barely half as long as shade-grown trees. Plus, researchers have found between 94 and 97% fewer species of birds in sun-grown coffee plantations than shade-grown farms.

…Hence the hullabaloo.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Jessica permalink
    January 15, 2009 12:58 am

    Goats discovered coffee, that’s awesome! I am definitely going to use that as a ‘did you know…fact’. Mmmm…I love organic, fair trade, shade grown coffee! Great story

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