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Smell the coffee (on coffee), Claude Alvares

filter coffeeI’ve seen some chatty newspaper columns that say, “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Ever thought why they only ask you to smell the coffee and not drink it as well?

I’m obviously pulling your leg. After all, everyone smells good coffee before drinking it. That’s part of the gift of good coffee. The fact of the matter is most of the coffee you may be drinking nowadays is best kept only for the nose and not for your stomach.

Coffee—like several of the nicest things in life—is nowadays grown with a basket of the most deadly chemicals. Some of these chemicals don’t go away.

They come free with the coffee but they extract their price as only dangerous chemicals can. For those who don’t know, coffee grows on trees – on a coffee bush, in fact.

A coffee-growing bush looks very much like one of those quaint characters from the Tolkien fables. Once it has reached its mature size (anything above a metre), the vertical shoots at the top of the bush are pruned every year, so it looks like it has only arms and no head.

The branches expand in gangly fashion, very much like someone with an extremely short body but very long arms. The coffee beans are found in clusters on the side branches. After the bush flowers, green berries appear which turn red before the harvest.

Coffee plants are affected by borer insects and by some fungal diseases. To get rid of the insect borers, farmers use lindane, a chemical banned in 55 countries of the world. Some even use monocrotophos or dicrotophos, both organophosphate pesticides. Experts say that it is one of the highest sprayed crops, second only to cotton.

As a rule, coffee farmers will spray these chemicals on their plants about 2-4 times a year. What is worse, the chemicals are sprayed directly on the coffee berries to prevent berry drop. In coffee-pepper plantations, farmers habitually spray a blanket of copper sulphate over both crops.
None of these practices are permitted, but India does not have a single facility to monitor pesticide use on farms.

Lindane has been linked to breast cancer and can disrupt hormone systems, damage the nervous and immune systems and cause birth defects.
The European Union has classified monocrotophos as dangerous for the environment.

Its use is banned in the US. The chemical is most toxic to birds, extremely toxic for other wildlife, and highly toxic to bees. The Coff ee Board, however, hasn’t banned the use of these chemicals yet.

It’s not that the coffee bush will not grow without chemicals. Organically grown coffee is also fairly successful, but grown in isolated farms.
Organically grown coffee is not difficult to source. I recently visited the Rainforest Retreat at Medikeri in Coorg where coffee is extensively grown. The RR has a website and you can email them for coffee beans or filter grind (wapred.india@
They are so well organized, they can send it to you by post or truck anywhere, depending on the quantity. Their coffee, 100% chemical-free, is simply out of this world.

coffee beansBut there are dozens of other suppliers. Use the Internet or visit neighbourhood organic food stores whose population is increasing. Once you get a good source or farm, you can store a year’s supply of coffee beans or filter grind in air-tight containers or in the deep-freezer and thus, be able to use the organic coffee throughout the year.

Organic coffee need not be costlier than conventionally grown coffee either or it may be at the most marginally more expensive.

Ask for it, nonetheless. The more you ask, the more the market will respond and farmers will revert to safer ways. In fact, this is one way in which homemakers can dramatically transform India’s agriculture without venturing outside their homes.

How to buy safe coffee

Look for organic food stores in your city. The internet is a good source of information about suppliers who courier coffee to you.

Make sure that the coffee supplier or farm is authorized by a certifying agency to market organic coffee. The coffee packet must state whether the place from which the coffee originates has been certified organic and who the certifying agency is.

If you buy coffee without a certified label make sure you know the coffee grower well or are buying directly from an organic farm.

If you buy coffee beans and grind them for filter coffee, you can eliminate adulteration completely. However, only organically grown coffee beans will ensure that the coffee is free from harmful pesticide residues as well.

Claude Alvares is associated with the organic farming and safe food movement in India. He is editor of the Organic Farming Source Book. This article was originally published by PINK--Healthy Living magazine, a supplement of India Today, in 2008.

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