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My Morning Cup of Coffee Kills Monkeys

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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spider-monkeyMy coffee habit is killing the black-handed spider monkey, a cute New World simian (my favorite kind) that thrives in the canopy of Central American forests with tall trees. That’s pretty much the opposite of the kinds of forests that still exist where the spider monkey lives, because for decades we’ve been cutting down those tall trees to make room for farms. Worse, the monkey requires a large amount of such forest as a home range to find enough fruits to eat.

What do those farms grow, you ask? Well, more often than not, it’s coffee beans. The international trade in Central American coffee has spurred forest clearing that eradicates habitat for the endangered monkey and, ultimately, the monkey itself.

The monkey’s woes come despite its protected status. This spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) shelters behind the legal shield of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meaning it cannot be openly sold, which is meant to keep it from becoming a pet (yes, it’s that cute). But no such protection exists for its habitat, which may ultimately make any other protections moot. Not even the monkey’s amazing gripping tail can help it hang on in the face of forest clearing.

And that’s why this spider monkey is just one of at least 25,000 animals currently threatened around the globe. The primary culprit in at least 30 percent of such looming extinctions, according to a new analysis published in Nature on June 7? Global trade.

By linking the list of threatened species prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to a list of some 15,000 globally traded commodities as well as more than 5 billion supply chains—i.e. the route that takes rubber from a tree to your car’s tire—the authors of the study revealed that Americans, Europeans and Japanese are largely eating, drinking and wearing the primary causes of the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history. That’s because palm oil plantations in Indonesia, mining in Madagascar and forestry in Papua New Guinea are providing the fundamental inputs of the global economy at the expense of a long list of animals, plants, fungi and microbes.

As a result, the planet is losing species at least 100 times faster than the historic rate of extinction (outside of the five previous mass extinction events), a bio-apocalypse driven by our taste for fine coffee, cocoa, tea and gadgets, among other things. Averaged out, every person on Earth requires more than two acres of land to support his or her consumption. In reality, people like me in the U.S. require multiple acres of land each while billions of the worlds’ poorest get by on less than an acre.

Given my own predilections, let’s just look at coffee. The cultivation of coffee beans to supply a seemingly unquenchable thirst for stimulus now threatens species from Central America to Indonesia. But sprawling coffee farms (even the shade-grown ones, though those are better) aren’t the only things endangering species. Logging, city-building, even industrial pollution, among other uniquely human pursuits, also conspire to eliminate life. This problem is not restricted to coffee farms or developing countries either, mind you. In the U.S., some 450 species are affected by our timber and fishing industries, for example.

But it is American consumption, above all, that is wiping out biodiversity. Our imports are contributing to the loss of nearly 1,000 species, according to this new analysis, outstripping the Japanese tally and dwarfing the Germans. That’s quite the outsized footprint we’re leaving, kicking a gaping hole in the web of life. We are also imposing our vision of radically simplified ecosystems on the globe: crop monocultures, unchecked spread of certain generalist species (think: rats), and paved landscapes.

This is a problem that is not getting better, despite world leaders having agreed to make it better all the way back in 1992 with the Convention on Biological Diversity. World leaders and people generally have made little progress in ensuring that the rich array of plants and animals that shared the world with us would thrive along with us, even less progress than the better known fight initiated against climate change at the same time, which hasn’t exactly been a rousing success. Instead, in the 20 years since the biodiversity convention was signed, the extinction of species has accelerated and new targets to restrain this holocaust agreed in 2010 in Japan—including halving habitat loss by the end of the decade—may yet again prove no more than words on paper.

Fortunately, we still have roughly 9 million different kinds of plants, animals, microbes and fungi on the planet so the Earth won’t soon be devoid of life. But this loss of biodiversity has a whole slew of impacts, according the majority of scientific research published in the last 20 years. Losing species means environments that are less productive for life as a whole, less stable, and more likely to change in function (bye bye clean water). In fact, this loss of biodiversity may be the single largest environmental change we humans are foisting on our home planet, outpacing even climate change.

This is also nothing new. Humans have been driving other species extinct for at least tens of thousands of years, if not millions. The question is whether this accelerating process is already too far gone to stop. After all, so-called “critical transitions” or “tipping points” can occur that fundamentally reorder the shape of the world.

Take, for example, the end of the last Ice Age, in which great ice sheets that had been covering some 30 percent of the globe retreated over the course of thousands of years. That led to extinctions, range shifts and, ultimately, cleared the way for human civilization (and the seven billion of us on the planet today.) Our collective impact has now turned more than 40 percent of the globe to our uses—whether agriculture or cities—and plants will have to move much faster than they did as the glaciers shrank to keep up. In fact, to keep up with the climate change we’re creating by burning fossil fuels, flora and fauna will have to move on the order of decades rather than millennia.

What are the solutions? First, slow human population growth (good news: it’s already happening) and also restrain consumption (not so much). Protect biodiversity where it still exists and figure out ways to power human society without fossil fuels (or alternative energy sources that impact habitats). Perhaps even reconfigure corporations so that they can better steward limited resources, argues Pavan Sukhdev, former head of the United Nations Environment Program’s Green Economy initiative, in a comment in Nature published on June 7. His hypothetical “Corporation 2020″ would reveal its global impacts—whether on biodiversity or human rights—engage in forthright advertising, limit debt and pay taxes based on resource extraction to encourage efficient use.

Such corporate reform may seem a long shot. But remember, even the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs—the global trade rules precursor to the World Trade Organization, the only international body that powerful independent countries like the U.S. or China seem to obey—contains a clause that allows countries to adopt “measures relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources.” Life itself is one of those exhaustible resources, apparently, and far more unique than, say, copper.

The alternative is to continue as we have, which will keep us on track to kill off 75 percent of the known species on the planet. That would make this sixth extinction the second worst ever, behind only the Permian—a dubious distinction for our species. We have already lost species (that we know of) ranging from the river dolphin dubbed the baiji to the ground-dwelling dodo bird. If we can’t even bother to save the charismatic megafauna, who knows what species of molluscs or roundworms have winked out of existence without us ever noticing? How long will it take to recover from that?

Ecosystems are still adapting to the loss of large carnivores 10,000 years ago, which percolated down to even the types of vegetation that grow in a given region. And plants around the world continue to produce fruits or berries for birds and other animals that no longer exist. It takes hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions) to recover from a mass extinction. In fact, research published recently in Nature Geoscience notes that it took 10 million years to fully restore ecosystems following the Permian mass extinction event, which wiped out nearly three-quarters of the species then living on land and nearly all ocean life.

Speaking of which, we won’t even hardly know what ocean life we’ve lost from the 70 percent of the planet covered by water. And what we don’t know may kill us, if it turns out to have played a critical role in global systems—whether climate regulation or food supply.

Our own place in this mess may be the only way to get you and me to care about this issue. Biodiversity is not a very people friendly word. What is in it for me? After all, I drink coffee to keep up with my work and my family (our population rears its head again). There’s no question I’m addicted. The only question is whether I can get my fix without killing the black-handed spider monkey.

The only solutions presently available in the trade arena are so-called certification schemes, like that of the Rainforest Alliance. That scheme chose as its symbol the red-eyed tree frog, another endangered species from a group—the amphibians—more threatened than any other. The frog means that someone somewhere ensured that the coffee you are drinking was brewed from beans produced to meet certain criteria. That is if someone is around to check; the organization may lack the funds to keep up with the demand for oversight to ensure that certification schemes do indeed deliver what they promise and they are taking on a role that governments either cannot or will not do.

Take El Salvador. The only forests that remain are the forests on coffee plantations, and they will only remain as long as farmers certified by groups like the Rainforest Alliance can earn more money for their coffee beans. And there is a human component to this misery. People, often smallholder farmers, grow those coffee beans in a bid to produce a better life. Finding solutions that work for them, like central bean processing mills that can save farmers labor as well as water, will be key. It’s a new capitalism where everyone can win, including the planet, we are promised. But the black-handed spider monkey may find it hard to factor into that new financial calculus. What is this monkey’s continuing existence worth? That is both the wrong question and the only question that can shift the present system of global trade.

My aim here is not to depress you, it is to empower you. Surely if we apply some of that vaunted human ingenuity to this problem, the problem of preserving our fellow travelers on this planet hurtling through the vast void of space, we can solve it. Surely there is room for the black-handed spider monkey outside of a zoo or its “wild” cousin, the eco-tourist nature preserve.

It’s not just my inviolable coffee, of course, that’s doing in the spider monkey, which hangs by its tail from trees as it feeds and whose barks, whinnies, screams and other calls fill the treetops with lively sound. It’s also my taste for chocolate, our sweet tooth, which we share with the fruit-loving New World monkey. It remains to be seen whether we African apes can invent a more sustainable mode of consumption. If not, we will find ourselves living—if our own species survives—on a planet haunted by ghosts. The black-handed spider monkey and all its fellows are ours to save or discard. Otherwise, the taste of coffee may just be too bitter to bear.

Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Gatnos 7:48 pm 06/6/2012

    C’mon David, admit it – your making most of this up. Not a single scientific study was cited. Using emotionally charged words like “holocaust” and throwing around factoids as if they were real facts without supporting evidence. What is your point? Do you want Americans to stop using coffee? Do you have beef with Starbucks? I also saw cocoa mentioned as an evil crop. Just try to take chocolate away from the roughly 159,000,000 American females. Yes, you are right; humanity is selfishly using the world resources at the expense of other species, but you have a hard case to sell if you want us to get upset over fungi and microbes. The United States has taken great strides to be responsible conservationists (not environmentalists), the fact that the rest of the world has not; is not the fault of us the consumer. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of those who are willing to destroy their property and natural resources for these cash crops. Stop with the guilt trips already and write something scientific.

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  2. 2. marclevesque 7:57 pm 06/6/2012

    “What are the solutions?”

    Maybe, also, people in general, people in role models, and people in positions of authority, be it at a local, national, or international levels, need to reconsider their promotion, albeit often unconscious, of indiscriminate economic growth.

    Like a pyramid scheme that eventually runs out of new recruits and leaves most everyone poor except for those few that got in early, the rise of the ideology of economic growth, especially as a solution to crisis, is leading us toward unsustainable disparity, lower human productivity, and all the negative consequences of an our increasing environmental degradation, and like in a pyramid scheme raised to a planetary scale the more we voice equitable and overarching ideas of growth, the more we can update or reduce the influence of our present narrow, inaccurate, and too often misleading economic assumptions.

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  3. 3. dbiello 8:14 pm 06/6/2012

    Gatnos, may I suggest that you click on a few links if you want to find the scientific studies cited? Start with those in paragraph 4 and work you way on down. Then get back to me on producer versus consumer responsibility (though I agree that the blame is at least partially shared. Might I add that by your logic, many American farmers would be to blame?)

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  4. 4. geojellyroll 8:32 pm 06/6/2012

    This article is a hodgepodge that meanders so many disciplines it’s akin to religion….sounds like it has some ‘meaning’ but is based on ‘nothing’.

    As a high school paper it might get a B-…as a paper on a science site it earnsd a big ‘F’.

    ‘Fellow travelers on the planet’…please!!!! This is not a beauty pageant site.

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  5. 5. N a g n o s t i c 10:56 pm 06/6/2012

    So much verbiage over one stupid animal. Big deal if it goes extinct. Coffee helps people live longer, and staves off Alzheimer’s. Screw the monkeys.

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  6. 6. priddseren 11:19 pm 06/6/2012

    I do enjoy environmentalists who can toss out a ridiculous statistic and then say except not counting this or that. Here is is the claim extinction is happening at 100 times faster than any other time except the 5 great mass extinctions don’t count. Well of course they don’t count because if you did count them the statistic would be extinction is happening at a slower rate than any time in history.

    But as if I would expect anything else. This author also drinks the warmist koolaid and the warmists leave out things like ice ages and the PETM and pretty much any other data that throws off their computer models.

    At least Mr. Biello is consistent in the way he uses invented statistical data to exaggerate his concerns.

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  7. 7. thevillagegeek 11:35 pm 06/6/2012

    Here is is the claim extinction is happening at 100 times faster than any other time except the 5 great mass extinctions don’t count. Well of course they don’t count because if you did count them the statistic would be extinction is happening at a slower rate than any time in history.

    Any time in history? Really? There is a heck of a lot of history and prehistory outside the large extinction events, and it doesn’t have to get as bad as those were to be extremely undesirable. Your claim does not logically follow from the fact of exclusion. As usual, your arguments (accusations?) are conveniently vague or unsupported, aimed at casting doubt without offering the credibility or objectivity that you demand from others.

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  8. 8. cazcazn 10:19 am 06/7/2012

    @Gatnos: a response.

    “Not a single scientific study was cited.”
    - I counted seven before getting bored clicking through links to verify. Learn to count.

    “humanity is selfishly using the world resources at the expense of other species, but you have a hard case to sell if you want us to get upset over fungi and microbes.”
    - Fungi and microbes are vital for the health of our soils [1]. You eat food which is grown from soil, therefore your survival depends on soil. The health of the topsoil (which isn’t rapidly depleting [2]) is ensured by a delicate balance of fungi and microbes. Without fungi and microbes you die. Read any research by mycologists (Paul Stamets is one), or any other biology standard textbook. This is basic science.
    Fertilisers and pesticides kill microbes and fungi, which is making the situation worse. This isn’t just happening in far-out places, it’s happening in America.

    “The United States has taken great strides to be responsible conservationists (not environmentalists)”
    - No it hasn’t. It has preserved a few national parks, and they are succumbing badly to pollution. The air quality in the Sequoias is so bad that they are having to close the parks. It’s causing immense problems. [3]

    “the fact that the rest of the world has not; is not the fault of us the consumer. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of those who are willing to destroy their property and natural resources for these cash crops.”
    - I somewhat agree with you: it is not entirely the fault of the consumer. However, the blame does not lie squarely on the shoulders of the farmers in these places. Developed countries are forcing under-developed countries to pay large debts for interest on payments. The farmers do not have a choice in the matter. They despise deforestation (travel there, see for yourself) – if you were to understand the complexity of the situation, you would realise they have no choice. It is either resort to exporting the natural resources or starve to death. They do not have the luxury of a Starbucks on every corner: they have the reality of destroying their environment (I repeat: they hate to do so) so they can feed their families [4]. As consumers, we can change our buying habits to only buy products which are fair. Why is that such a big deal?

    As for the general gist of the article: biodiversity is vital for human life. [5]

    [1] http://www.ehow.com/info_8014312_soil-microbes-important.html
    [2] http://www.seattlepi.com/national/article/The-lowdown-on-topsoil-It-s-disappearing-1262214.php
    [3] http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/47592920/ns/local_news-monterey_ca/t/sequoia-has-worst-air-pollution-us-national-parks/#.T9C19LRYsxU
    [4] http://www.aiu.edu/publications/student/english/Sustainable-Development-and-Environmental-Issues.htm
    [5] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v486/n7401/full/nature11148.html

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  9. 9. TinaF 12:29 pm 06/7/2012

    I’m very curious as to what possible alternative energy sources are available that don’t have an impact on habitats. Biofuels are mostly out, because you need some kind of land. You could use waste oil and waste wood. Wind is iffy because if you put it in the wrong spot it kills birds and bats. Also, I’ve heard concerns that wind power changes local climates, which would destroy habitats. Nuclear energy might work, unless there is accident. Then again, I’m pretty sure piles of nuclear waste have an impact on habitats. Solar energy is possible, but solar panels are black. Aren’t black roofs and pavements being blamed for raising temperatures? Geothermal might be a possibility…
    So I’m curious as to what source of energy we should use?
    Perhaps, if endangering of monkeys so distresses you, you could stop drinking coffee. It’s not essential for survival.

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  10. 10. gmperkins 4:06 pm 06/7/2012

    The only viable solution to all environmental issues is less humans. Choices for this are: devastating wars; another ice age; sizable meteor impact; multiple huge volcanic eruptions; deadly plague(s); somehow convincing everyone to create less babies, world wide (despite the fundamental messages of many religions). Basically, write articles on how we can limit/stop/reverse population growth if you want to make a difference because humans aren’t going to stop eating and drinking various foods.

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  11. 11. marclevesque 7:42 pm 06/7/2012

    @marclevesque –If I could edit my previous comment I would, but I can’t, and maybe that is good too

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  12. 12. Rev.Corvette 7:55 pm 06/7/2012

    Thank you Mr. David Biello for the invigorating article. It seems to have generated a bit of energy in and of itself. While your emotionally charged words and phrases like “holocaust” and “kicking a gaping hole in the web of life” are a bit incendiary, I don’t think your objective has as much to with encouraging Americans (and all people) to save those cute little monkeys or stop using coffee as it does with doing whatever it takes to evoke the human awareness that it’s all connected. We’ve gotten so accustomed to our non-sustainable push-button lifestyles, for so long now that it’s going to take some extremely good science in conjunction with the unwavering determination of our species not to ignore the “mud hole” that we have kicked into our environment while we finish stomping it dry.

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  13. 13. jack77 10:45 pm 06/7/2012

    If I was rich like Gates, Ellison, Koch, Walton and others I would buy large tracks of land around the world and leave it to wild life. The land would still belong to them so their status on Forbes’rich list could remain. Buying and preserving large tracks of land would be a good deed that would benefit the world.

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  14. 14. JacobSilver 10:00 am 06/8/2012

    This is not the first mass extinction, and probably not the last. Big animals tend to go early, the rhinoceros, new world monkeys, the Siberian tiger, and others. One species which will persist because of its intelligence, but will not be the last to go, will be humans. Probably will be extinct by the end of this, or the beginning of the next, century.

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  15. 15. Heteromeles 11:12 am 06/8/2012

    While I’m pretty sure we’re in a mass extinction event and have been for about 12,000 years, there are some problems, specifically with the fossil record.

    We are comparing apples to oranges, because the fossil record primarily covers depositional environments: coasts, lakes, near-shore oceans, river beds, and so forth. We don’t have good fossil records for islands or mountains, and these are places where we’re losing a lot of species right now. As a result, there’s a certain amount of guesswork in the claims that we’re losing species at “x times the background rate.”

    That said, rivers, coasts, and reefs are being hammered even worse than upland coffee farms are, so I think it’s safe to say that once someone starts digging up the fossils, yes, we will have been the sixth mass extinction.

    In the past, it’s taken about 10,000,000-15,000,000 years for diversity to recover after a mass extinction (i.e. for big-bodied animals to evolve). Compare that with the 6,000 to 8,000 years of civilized history. So yes, once we get a clue, nature will take a thousand times our recorded history to figure out what to do with the mess we made.

    Finally, evolution is happening at a furious pace right now: we’re seeing massive evolution of new varieties, possibly even species. Where? Weeds, pests, and pathogens, all of which are taking advantage of these neat new habitats we’re constructing.

    This is ultimately the reason why conservation makes sense. Most rare species won’t survive without our forbearance, if not our active care. Most weeds and pests will not only survive, they will thrive on our stupidity in making habitat for them, and make the world a much more miserable place for us. Which would you rather picnic in, a field of wildflowers or a field of thistles?

    If we had any sense, we’d conserve as much as possible, just to keep around the organisms we evolved with. Obviously we have no such sense.

    The only good news for the non-human world is that global civilization is much more fragile than, say, the human species, and I think we can expect humans to get to a more sustainable level more or less inevitably, either by choice or through a global crash and the massive loss of life that implies.

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  16. 16. jonathanseer 7:15 pm 06/8/2012

    The obvious answer was inferred early in the article. Obviously the native people have made pets of these guys since forever.

    In a hair brained effort to “save” them this has been made illegal.

    Allow them to be pets albeit with safeguards to insure anyone who gets one is properly trained to take care of one, and the PROBLEM IS SOLVED.

    The notion that wild animals must/should live in the wild is a thoroughly Western one, and one not based in science.

    Most every animal if given a chance WILL CHOOSE to live in our world.

    It’s only that we fear and kill them that they are scarce.

    The few that truly eschew our world like this monkey clearly has its days numbered, because THERE ARE NO WILD PLACES LEFT.

    Yet people still strive to save them shipping them or restricting them to places that are no longer there.

    Create a place for them in OUR/man’s world and they will not go extinct.

    The fact that they will eventually go extinct in the wild well yeah, because “wild places” are on their way out.

    It doesn’t matter if it’s wrong or right.

    It is reality.

    And for the sake of the animals that need to be saved, we in the West have to give up this idiotic notion that they prefer to live wild.

    No they don’t Being wild means always struggling to get food, find shelter and avoid being eaten.

    In our world that’s taken care of. That’s why so many animals have taken advantage of living with us.

    If we simply created a list of people licensed and trained to take care of such animals say about 1/10th of all the dogs and cats in the USA no wild animal would ever disappear. They’d all be safe and sound, and their #s stable.

    The whole notion of “wildness” is a human concept animals clearly don’t share. It’s sort of a “noble savage” concept for animals, and it’s just as stupid.

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  17. 17. stfree 4:52 pm 06/10/2012

    Even Gaia author Lovelock would have objected to the teleological statement: “And plants around the world continue to produce fruits or berries for birds and other animals that no longer exist.” Shall we ascribe a purpose to the production of fruits and berries to something other than the direct propagation of a species for it’s own imperative? This smacks of the fuzziest of science, if it can even rise to that status.

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  18. 18. eliza olson 7:15 pm 06/14/2012

    This is an interesting article. Some of the stats mentioned but not backed up with references, I have seen elsewhere. I happen to drink “Frog Friendly Coffee” from Mexico. It is wild coffee grown among the trees. The importer grew up in the area as a child. She and her family go back every year to help with the harvest. The “Frog Friendly Coffee” can be bought in Delta and Surrey, BC. As for the “emotional words”, the plain fact is that “emotion sells” or in this case, moves people to act in a different. Ohm by the way, there is a very expensive coffee made from beans first eaten by a monkey. Apparently, once it is expelled (pooped) by the monkey, the beans make a “superior coffee” at about $13-$15 a cup!

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