Shade-Grown Coffee Could Change the World
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Shade-Grown Coffee Could Change the World

Shade-grown coffee is better for both humans, animals, and farmers. So why isn’t it the norm?

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Venus Pino

Q Grader & Former QC Supervisor in the coffee industry

Green consumerism has been one of the biggest trends in the last couple of years.

Or maybe we shouldn’t call it a trend. In this case, a “movement” is probably a better description.

So, where does coffee fit into this move towards sustainability? 

There is no doubt that industrial-scale agriculture — including coffee farming — has been responsible for deforestation in some locations.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Coffee can be sustainable and a vehicle for positive change.  

So how is this going to happen? 

The ideal place to start the process is by embracing an ancient practice known as shade-grown coffee.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at what shade-grown coffee implies and why it’s so crucial when it comes to sustainability. 

Coffee in the foreground, shade canopy in the background.

What is Shade-Grown coffee? 

Shade-grown coffee simply means that coffee is grown under the shade or canopy of surrounding trees. 

This cultivation practice is not a new or radical idea—it’s naturally occurring.

Shade environments are coffee’s natural habitat. In countries where coffee grows in the wild, you will find small coffee shrubs and bushes thriving under the shade of larger forest trees.

This practice has been on the decline ever since coffee became an increasingly commercialized endeavor.

When it comes to the environment, the ideal farming system is called “traditional polyculture.”

Here farmers retain most of the forest vegetation, only replacing some native plants with coffee. 

Farmers make use of intercropping, where they plant other viable crops alongside coffee without clearing out shade trees. Hence, there is still significant shade cover in the area.

Whatever agroforestry system a farm chooses, it is clear that shade is a crucial component in coffee-growing. Again, we see that in the bean size. Studies have reported a larger bean size for coffee plants grown under shade conditions compared to sun-grown. 

There’s also a more uniform ripening of the coffee cherries resulting in consistent bean sizes.

Common coffee farming techniques: 

  • Rustic coffee farming: Smallholders often use the most traditional method that preserves the surrounding forest habitat. They choose instead to plant coffees in the available areas underneath the thick forest canopy. 
  • Coffee Garden/Traditional Polyculture: Very similar to “rustic”, except there are some other cash crops grown alongside the coffee. For example, fruit trees.
  • Commercial polyculture: Large coffee plantations often remove native forest trees to make room for additional coffee (and other crops with commercial value). This means fewer shade trees and, therefore, less shade coverage.
  • Shaded monoculture: If there is only a single species of tree planted on the farm, it’s called shaded monoculture. 
  • Unshaded monoculture: This is the most productive and least sustainable type of coffee production. Just imagine a regular cornfield, and you sort of know what it looks like.
The five coffee-growing systems of Mexico, showing vegetational complexity, height of canopy, and variety of components.

Why is sun-grown so coffee bad?

Coffee naturally prefers to grow in the shade, which results in slower growth. 

If you’re a coffee farmer, who gets paid by weight (rather than quality), this is a dilemma. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, governments worldwide made efforts to help coffee farmers meet the increasing market demand. Here’s what they did:

  • Encouraged the reduction or removal of shade cover
  • Supported more intensified farming practices
  • Created yield-focused incentives in the form of coffee research institutes
  • Offered free or subsidized agrochemicals

Sun-growing may be optimal for production yield, but it is not sustainable.

Clearing the native forest trees to make room for coffee means the protective barrier provided by the canopy vanishes. 

This exposes the soil to harsh weather conditions, such as sun, wind, or heavy rain. At the same time, extensive tree root systems decline. 

These roots are helpful since they absorb rainfall and stabilize the steep slopes, where coffee is often planted.

In addition to accelerating soil erosion, the lack of shade cover also lowers soil moisture and decreases soil quality. Studies found that soil moisture in sun coffee farms is lower by 42% than farms with a leafy shade cover. In addition, the absence of leaf litter from shade trees (which act as organic fertilizer) calls for the increased use of chemical fertilizers.

The lack of shade also discourages animal life. When small animals and birds provide less natural pest control, farmers must rely on insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. 

All these practices contribute to soil deterioration. If this continues, the soil will struggle to recover, become infertile, and will no longer be useful for cultivation.

A coffee flower and a bee. Sometimes we forget that coffee is part of a natural habitat.

What are the effects on the environment and your health?

The unsustainable conditions created by sun-growing practices also pose a threat to other living things. For example, heavy use of pesticides in these farmlands contaminates both the soil and water. This pollution puts the health of plants, animals, and humans at risk.

Controlling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also becomes problematic in this scenario because sun-growing involves deforestation, further adding to global warming.

Shade trees in coffee farms act as “carbon sinks” that capture and store carbon in their trunks, limbs, leaves, and roots. Without their presence in farms, there will be no other place for carbon to go but into the atmosphere.

Studies found that coffee farms using the traditional polyculture system store more carbon dioxide than the other types. However, even farms that only use minimal shade trees still were able to lessen carbon in the atmosphere.

With the loss of complex vegetation, as exhibited in sun coffee farms, it can no longer serve as a habitat for various animals. The health of an ecosystem largely depends on the network of intricate food webs, which is only possible when the environment is diverse enough to support it.

A benefit of this food web structure is how it provides natural pest control services in agroforestry lands. The most species-rich group is insects, common agricultural pests, including the coffee berry borer that damages coffee crops. In addition, they serve as food for spiders, ants, bats, and birds.

Studies found that birds in shade coffee farms reduce the presence of herbivorous insects up to 80%. Conversely, when birds were absent, there was more significant insect damage to the coffee leaves. Some studies even reported a 70% increase of coffee fruits infested with coffee berry borer when there were no birds in the area.

It’s interesting to note that majority of those preying on the coffee berry borer are migratory birds that take shelter in shade coffee farms during their long travels. (1)

Aside from pest control, other animals also contribute through pollination and seed dispersal, all of which preserve the balance of a healthy ecosystem.

It’s unfortunate how sun coffee farms dispense with a lot of these benefits for the sake of higher outputs.

Does shade-grown coffee taste better?

If coffee is cultivated under the right conditions, you would naturally expect that you’d be able to taste the difference in cup quality. But there are conflicting reports on this. 

Some studies have reported higher sugar and lipid contents in shade-grown coffee, linked to higher cup quality. Even the type of sugar was shown to be different. It was found that slower fruit ripening of coffee cherries under shade environments contributed to the production of more reducing sugars instead of the usual one (sucrose). 

And these reducing sugars play a crucial role in the chemical reactions responsible for flavor during coffee roasting. Another study also found that the antioxidant content of coffee is related to shade conditions. (2)

On the flip side of this, other studies found no improvement in cup quality in shade-grown coffees. They even reported that the taste worsened in coffee grown under the shade in very wet conditions.

What’s more interesting is that other studies pointed out how altitude can be a factor in determining the impact of shade conditions on cup quality. 

 Coffees in low-growing regions benefited the most from being grown under shade, with the resulting brew having improved acidity and body. 

It was suggested that the shade lowered the average temperature, slowing down fruit growth and producing uniformly sized cherries. 

This microclimatic effect also works the other way around: In higher altitude coffees, abundant shade could prove unfavorable, mainly if the surrounding temperature and condition fall outside the ideal range. This could support the growth of moisture-loving fungi during very wet seasons. In the cup, researchers found that fragrance, acidity, body, and sweetness were negatively impacted.

However, we can still say with certainty that the density of the coffee bean is closely linked to flavor attributes. Shade, along with altitude, is one of the ways can ensure more dense beans by slowing maturation down.  (3)

Read More: The Best Coffee Beans in the World

Different brands and growing practices

As calls for sustainable practices grow, large coffee companies have responded by qualifying their coffee products for special certifications (USDA Organic, Bird Friendly, Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, etc.).

Let’s take a look at a few of them and find out whether they support shade growing practices:

Starbucks

Starbucks has no certified shade-grown coffees in its selection. They previously offered an Organic Shade Grown Mexico—a certified organic coffee reportedly grown under the shade trees in Chiapas, Mexico. However, without the Bird Friendly certification from Smithsonian, it cannot be guaranteed that this coffee was grown in sustainable shade conditions. Starbucks has adopted Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices as their approach to ethically sourcing coffee and protecting the livelihoods of coffee producers.

Lavazza

This Italian company has its product line of organic coffees known as Lavazza Tierra. These coffees have no shade certification; the ones they do have are Rainforest Alliance and USDA Organic. This recent project aimed to improve the living conditions of coffee-growing communities while promoting sustainable coffee cultivation.

McDonald’s

This giant fast-food company is trying to source all of its products sustainably. While their coffees have yet to be certified as shade-grown, most of them are certified to Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, and Fair Trade.

Allegro

This company is one of the few that offers coffee grown on farmlands in Latin America that are certified Smithsonian Bird Friendly. Their product is called Allegro Coffee Organic Early Bird Blend.

How do I know if my coffee is shade-grown?

A surefire way to promote sustainable farming practices is to show support to those who engage in them. To do that, we need to know what the different certifications mean and which of them guarantee that coffee is sustainably grown.

However, it’s important to remember that a tremendous amount of paperwork is required to achieve many of these certifications. Therefore, it is usually not a priority for a poor coffee farmer in the third world to go through an application process — even though their farms are technically using shade. 

For that reason, you can afford some leeway when it comes to single-origin specialty coffee. If the coffee is traceable and, most importantly, delicious, there is a high probability that it’s been growing in accordance with sustainable principles. 

Bird-Friendly

Developed by scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in the United States, this certification is recognized to have the world’s most stringent standards for shade-grown coffee production. Some of the criteria include strict requirements for the height of shade cover and the number of tree species in a farm; a farm also should qualify at least for traditional polyculture. This seal of approval guarantees that the coffee is both certified organic and shade-grown. It also ensures that the agroforests that serve as habitats for migratory birds are conserved, and coffee producers are paid premiums when their coffees are purchased.

Organic

This certifies that a crop was not grown using prohibited chemicals (synthetic pesticides and fertilizers). While this doesn’t guarantee that the coffee is shade-grown, it makes it highly likely.

Rainforest Alliance

This certification is more accessible than Bird Friendly, but the standards for shade cover are less stringent. They also do not require farms to be certified organic.

Fairtrade

This focuses primarily on fair prices and deals between producers and businesses. However, it does not indicate anything about environmental practices.

Conclusion

There are many certifications and fluffy words involved in coffee marketing today. 

It can be hard to determine whether the coffee was grown under sustainable conditions or has merely been “green-washed.”

If you want to be entirely sure that coffee is grown under the proper conditions, then look for the Bird-Friendly logo on the packaging. Remember, it is not enough for a product to be labeled “shade-grown.” This label is still flexibly used today because it is yet to be regulated. 

By consumers raising awareness and purchasing sustainable coffees, we put pressure on companies and farmers to cultivate coffees that taste better and are also better for the environment.

Top Featured Image: Frank_am_Main  – Flickr CC 2.0