Fifty Shades of Green? Why It's Important

In the eternal quest for ‘better’ coffee, there are a plethora of labels applied to raw beans to get our attention.

Fairtrade, Organic, Bird Friendly, Rainforest, AAA, Café Practices, the list goes on. One of the more recent tags applied is ‘Shade Grown’ but with little clarity in regards to certification and with so many causes célèbre to choose from, I thought it was high time to examine Shade-Grown coffee.

In the wild, as in the forests of Ethiopia, coffee grows under the forest canopy where it is sheltered from the sun, wind, heavy rain, and temperature fluctuations. The diversity of plant and bird species can aid pest control, promote water retention, and prevent erosion. The forest also provides pollinators. Although Arabica coffee is self-pollinating when it is pollinated by bees and other animals the quality and yield can be higher.

Full-Sun (AKA Unshaded Monoculture) on the other hand is an intensive system where coffee trees are given absolutely no canopy. Often the land is cleared and Coffee bushes are planted in high density where they are exposed to direct sunlight. This method requires a large amount of “inputs” (chemical fertilizers and pesticides), does not encourage water retention, and to some extent discourages bio-diversity. While there are benefits to these more modern, intensive, sun-grown farming practices (improved yield, profitability and in some cases better quality), shade-grown coffee is seen to be a more sustainable option.
So, on the face of it, it is a no brainer. Choose shade coffee, organic coffee every time, right?

Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

There are several different models for shade grown coffee. From ‘rustic’ style plantations, where the native undergrowth is replaced with coffee plants, to ‘shaded mono-culture’ where coffee is shaded with one (often introduced) species, shade coffee comes in many…well…shades. Not all “Shade-Coffee” is an environmental panacea.

In ‘Shaded mono-culture’ for example, the benefits of shade are somewhat mitigated. Avocado trees make a good complimentary crop to coffee, providing farmers with more income and food, as well as providing shade for the coffee. While crop diversification can help farmers when coffee prices are low you can’t really say in this case that Shade-Grown coffee is encouraging bio-diversity. In both Ethiopia and Costa Rica, trials have been done with Eucalyptus trees which are fast growing and provide shade, firewood, and even scaffolding. This seems like a good idea except Eucalypts are notoriously thirsty and they don’t support native species.

Consideration of the topography of the land is also key to the conversation. With the possibility of machine harvesting, in Brazil, for example, shade trees would make automated picking impractical. On the steeper hills of Colombia however, machine harvesting is impossible resulting in more shade trees. A discussion about the location of the growing region is also necessary. In the low altitude, unbearable heat of India, shade trees is necessary to ensure the coffee isn’t burnt.

The sheer volume of coffee required to keep the world caffeinated is also a concern. It is doubtful that Shade-Grown plants will be able to provide enough coffee for all the worlds drinkers any time soon, even with hybrid varieties and modern farming practices improving yield. Balancing environmental concerns with practicalities of the coffee market is essential.

When done properly, with biodiversity in mind, shade-grown coffee can present a compelling model for the future. In a study of shade vs. sun coffee in Guatemala, overall bird abundance was 30% higher in shaded farms than solar farms. In another study in Jamaica, birds were excluded from one coffee plantation resulting in a 70% increase in Broca infestations. These figures are encouraging but we also need (for now at least) large scale industrial coffee plantations producing the majority of the world’s coffee at prices roasters and consumers can afford.

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