Coffee beans are the number one agricultural commodity in the global North-South trade.
It’s not all that surprising when you consider how ingrained coffee is in cultures all around the world.
If you’re pouring out a cup of coffee each morning, you might know where your beans are from, but do you know how they’re grown? Whether your coffee was shade-grown or sun-grown actually plays a critical role in the balance of delicate ecosystems, particularly in Latin America.
What Is Shade-Grown Coffee?
If you take a moment to imagine a coffee farm, what do you see? If you see rows and rows of plants baking in the sun, you’re not alone. Data shows that only 24% of coffee areas in the world are managed with traditional diverse shade.
Put simply, shade-grown coffee is the practice of growing coffee plants under some type of shade. Typically, the amount of shade varies. As Rob Everts, the Co-Executive Director at Equal Exchange defines it, shade-grown coffee is: “Coffee grown under some level of canopy, ranging from full forest canopy to areas with less overstory, like interplanting with things like banana trees.”
In fact, all coffee used to be shade-grown.
Dr. Edward Fischer is a Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Latin American Studies Center at Vanderbilt University who specializes in coffee production in Guatemala.“Coffea arabica emerged originally in the forests of Ethiopia. Thus, in its original habitat, coffee was grown under forest canopy. In commercial production, shade-grown coffee is considered to produce a higher quality coffee.”
As Dr. Fischer implies, there are many benefits of growing shade-grown coffee for both the final product and the local environment.
So why did farmers move away from growing shade-grown coffee?
Between the 1970s and 1990s, coffee farmers were introduced to sun coffee systems, which were intended to increase crop yield. However, monocropping like this is dependent on heavy use of industrial fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. The practice itself requires acres of cleared land, and deforestation has negatively impacted the planet.
7 Shade-Grown Coffee Benefits
When you reach for a new bag of beans, consider these benefits of buying, drinking, and supporting shade grown coffee.
More than 85 species of threatened birds in Latin America have suffered the effects of deforestation due to logging and agriculture. Birds rely on trees for food and shelter during their migration, which is being directly threatened by deforestation for coffee farms and other agricultural commodities.
You may have heard of bird-friendly coffee or the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly Coffee Certification. This is the most stringent requirement for shade-grown coffee beans because it prioritizes the habitat for migratory and native birds, which is provided by the forested areas where coffee is grown. A 2013 study in Ethiopia proved that certification programs make these shade-grown coffee farms less likely to be deforested, whereas non-certified coffee farms and even forested areas without coffee growing are more susceptible to deforestation.
Desertification and soil erosion occur in monocrops. In the Global South, this can happen on sun-grown coffee farms, and once rich, nutritious soil becomes thin, lackluster, dirt. This erosion makes it easier for pests and weeds to take advantage of crops, which increase chemical usage. Eventually, this land must be abandoned because the environment is so depleted.
Shade-grown coffee combats desertification and promotes soil conservation in a few ways. Firstly, the mere presence of leaves prevents hard rain from eroding the soil. A study examining Puerto Rican coffee farms determined that in addition to combating soil erosion, shade-grown crops moderate soil temperature, and reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, which affect human health through ingestion and application. Since poor soil can make it difficult or impossible to grow coffee, shade-grown coffee is a simple approach to restore the land and protect the soil, which contains billions of microorganisms that are beneficial to the planet.
The positive effects of introducing trees among agricultural areas is called agroforestry. By mixing various vegetation, a larger variety of animals, insects, and microorganisms contribute to a balanced ecosystem. This allows species to breed and thrive, which means more pollination.
The reduction of pests on shade-grown coffee farms in comparison to sun-grown coffee farms is two-fold. Firstly, the presence of predatory birds helps inhibit the spread of potential pests on coffee plants. Secondly, the shade trees over the coffee plants cool the soil and dissuade certain pests from breeding and staying there. The white stem borer is a type of beetle that burrows into the stems of a coffee plant. By keeping coffee plants in shade, this pest is no longer a concern.
Climate Change Prevention
Agriculture is responsible for 80% of deforestation around the world and it’s the largest driver for deforestation specifically in Latin America, where many coffee plantations are located. The removal of trees severely impacts the planet’s ability to sequester excess greenhouse gases and once trees are felled, they release all that stored carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, which only exacerbates the effects of climate change.
By keeping forests intact and growing coffee with other plants that shade the ground, more carbon sinks are created. A study in Brazil investigated the connection between shade-grown coffee and climate change. They learned that the adoption of shade-grown coffee practices can reduce climbing temperatures and ensure coffee production through 2050, an otherwise difficult feat for that part of the world under current conditions.
Shade-grown practices can even make the final cup of coffee taste better, which matters for those of us drinking black coffee for the lack of coffee-related calories. Dr. Fischer told us that the shade can yield bigger beans, which are of a higher quality than sun-grown beans, which are often low quality and high yield. Maggie Hare of Crema Coffee Roasters agrees and added that, “Keeping taller plants to shade the coffee allows for a slower maturation, which means more sugars develop in the bean. More sugars=better flavor once the bean is roasted”.
Enhanced Social Welfare for Farmers
The implementation of sun-grown coffee limits farmers to making a livelihood on a singular crop. On shade-grown coffee farms, a variety of crops can coexist which encourages economic stability.
Maggie even mentioned that some of Crema’s coffee suppliers in Costa Rica keep banana trees on their farms to provide on-the-job snacks for the harvesters. Once they’re done with the banana, they can simply toss the peel on the ground and those nutrients return to the soil.
Top 3 Shade-Grown Coffee Brands To Try Today
A couple of certifications encourage the practice of shade-growing coffee, including the Smithsonian’s Bird-Friendly Certification and the Rainforest Alliance Certification. Even without certifications, some coffee buyers who prioritize ethical sourcing and high-quality beans choose partners who happen to practice shade-growing.
Public Goods, for example, is constantly striving to acquire our food products from sustainable, ethical, and environmentally-friendly farmers. That’s why our ground and whole bean coffee is organic and fair trade. Need coffee filter cones or coffee filter baskets? We’ve got you covered.
Here are some other top-notch coffee brands.
Located in Raleigh, North Carolina, Larry’s is a certified B Corporation that roasts Fair Trade, shade-grown, and USDA Organic coffee beans all on its eco-friendly campus. Larry’s is run out of three buildings that have a plethora of sustainability measures in place to prioritize the planet like solar power, rainwater harvesting, and composting. Their single serve k-cup packaging is recyclable and they’re always on a mission to reuse and repurpose everything they use.
Crema Coffee Roasters
In Nashville, TN, Crema is the best spot in the city to get a wonderful cup of thoughtfully-made, shade-grown coffee. Sustainability is central to everything Crema does. As a carbon-neutral and zero-waste company, Crema works hard to ensure that their impact on the planet is only positive. Beyond serving up some of Music City’s best coffee, Crema is highly considerate of ethical sourcing and exclusively purchases beans from farmers they know and trust. They pay above the market average to help empower the communities who grow their beans.
Running on the business model of a social venture, Pura Vida puts farmers first. As one of the first coffee companies to sell Fair Trade coffee nationally, Pura Vida is a veteran in the world of doing good through coffee. Their USDA Organic, Fair Trade Shade-Grown coffee beans are locally roasted in small batches for optimal quality. To further their impact, Pura Vida donates to the Create Good Foundation, which aims to support at-risk children, especially in coffee-growing regions.
Green from Bean to Cup
Next time you’re picking up a bag of beans, think about the many certifications available to measure the sustainability of coffee. If you want to make sure your beans are a part of a supply chain that benefits growers, support Fair Trade and Equal Exchange initiatives. For an all-encompassing positive impact on the environment, check out Bird Friendly and Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee.
Arabica beans are more likely to be shade-grown, so opt for this organic fair trade ground coffee or organic fair trade whole bean coffee for an affordable, smooth coffee without pesticides or preservatives. If you prefer a sweet cup, add some organic cane sugar! Keep it green by using your coffee grounds for composting and you’re well on your way to a sustainable coffee routine.
Our purchasing decisions directly impact coffee farmers. The low prices we often see for coffee are a reflection of poor cultivation practices, treatment of workers, and a negative impact on the planet. By purchasing organic shade-grown coffee, we can all take a step in the right direction to protect people and the planet.
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