OK – so we’ve covered most of your morning routine: toothpaste, toothbrush, razor, soap, shampoo, clothing, and your electric kettle. Now that the water is boiled, it’s time for coffee! The good news is that coffee, as well as providing several health benefits can also be beneficial to the planet. However, as with everything else, the impact of coffee ranges from positive to negative. I’m going to focus here on one important factor: whether or not the coffee is shade-grown.
The photo on the left shows neighboring plantations of shade- and sun-grown coffee. The middle photo shows a more commercial full-sun coffee farm and on the right is a shade-grown coffee farm in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia.
Benefits of shade-grown coffee
Coffee trees reach a height of only around 10 feet and naturally grow under a canopy of taller trees that provides shade. Shade-grown coffee, managed well, can come close to the benefits of a natural rainforest ecosystem. Sun-grown coffee, on the other hand, can result in deforestation, habitat loss, and soil degradation. A review published in Bioscience in 2014 by researchers at the University of Texas provides a great overview of this issue – contact me if you can’t access it and I can send you a pdf of the paper. They sum up the benefits of shade-grown coffee as follows:
Though some of the forest understory is cleared for farming, a rich web of plant and animal life remains. As a result, shade grown coffee plantations provide corridors for migrating birds to move between forest fragments, attract and support economically valuable pollinators such as bees and bats, and provide ecosystem services such as filtering water and air, stabilizing soil during heavy rains, storing carbon and replenishing soil nutrients.
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) has also reviewed more than 50 studies on shade-grown coffee and come to a similar conclusion. The taller trees can offer large benefits by reducing or eliminating the need for herbicides (because of the leaf litter) and fertilizer (through nitrogen-fixation) and by reducing atmospheric CO2 (via all-important carbon storage in the soil).
How coffee growing is changing globally
The figure below from the Bioscience paper shows that between 1990 and 2010, coffee farming worldwide has shifted considerably. Coffee production has decreased in some African and Central American nations and increased dramatically in Brazil and Asia. The countries that have increased coffee production since 1990 tend to practice intensive agriculture; for example in Vietnam (now the second highest coffee-producer in the world) the major crop is Robusta coffee, which tolerates higher temperatures than Arabica beans and is often grown without shade.
The researchers found that while total global production of shade-grown coffee has increased since 1996, that full-sun coffee has increased at a much faster rate, resulting in the percentage of shade grown coffee falling from 43% of total cultivated area to 24%.
Quick summary of the paper: low commodity market prices for coffee are driving a shift from shade-grown coffee that supports a local forest ecosystem to sun-grown coffee where shade trees are removed to maximize efficiency.
So here’s a quick rundown on which certifications to look out for if you want to purchase shade-grown coffee.
Certifications for Shade-Grown Coffee
Here are four certification schemes that correlate to various extents with shade-grown coffee. The first two are the most important ones to look out for.
- SMBC Bird Friendly coffee. The SMBC has what are considered the strictest agricultural criteria for coffee and Bird Friendly certification requires that coffee is organic as well as shade-grown.
- Organic certification doesn’t appear to have a specific shade requirement, but many organic coffee farms do use shade. It makes sense on an organic farm even from a purely economic point of view – the leaf litter from the upper canopy provides an organic fertilizer for the coffee trees. Responsible roasters should be able to tell you whether their suppliers use shade – Equal Exchange points out that the majority of its coffee is organic and most of it is grown under shade.
- The Rainforest Alliance (which is more widely available than Bird Friendly coffee) follows the standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), a coalition of local, grassroots organizations. The SAN standard has been updated for 2017 and (in my opinion) has done a reasonably good job at covering many different social and environmental issues. They do stipulate requirements for shade cover of coffee:
(However, reading the fine print, it looks like farmers may also get away with 15% shade coverage)
- Fair Trade certification is mostly focused on price stabilization but does also cover some environmental aspects of coffee farming (e.g., water, pesticide, and fertilizer use). While Fair Trade certifications don’t explicitly require shade cover, most do encourage protection of natural vegetation. There’s also evidence that many of the small farmers who rely on Fair Trade certification also need tall shade trees for other sources of income (fruit, building materials, etc.).
Price fluctuations over the last few decades have devastated coffee farmers in some parts of the world and also prompted the shift towards intensive full-sun farming. In Part 2, I’ll take a look at methods for supporting coffee farmers by stabilizing prices – i.e., Fair Trade and other programs. I’ll also take a look at the value of the different certification programs versus some of the smaller “third-wave” coffee roasters that are doing things a different way.