Why Shade-Grown Coffee is a Crucial Part of Our Future

(The image above is from one of our partner farms in Chikmagalur, Karnataka.)

Have you thought about how your cup of coffee impacts climate change? Read on, to discover the power of the coffee farming process.

The meaning of ‘shade-grown’

The practice of growing shade-grown coffee is centuries old. This traditional farming method involves cultivating trees surrounding the coffee plants. These trees provide the beans with shelter and protection from the sun, wind and rainfall
Rather than making space for new crops, farmers use the vital canopy layer to preserve and bolster the existing ecosystem.

This foliage not only protects the coffee plants but also protects the environment. Animal habitats are preserved, and the quality of the soil is enhanced.

Advantages of growing coffee the traditional way

The benefits of producing shade-grown coffee are endless.

Firstly, it improves soil conditions, which leads to higher fertility and less erosion. The fine roots of the trees act as a form of support and binding mechanism for the soil. This prevents heavy rainfall from washing away the topsoil, the layer where you plant your seeds in the garden. Topsoil contains nutrients which, if washed away, farmers must replace with fertilisers which in turn, when excessively used can be highly destructive.

Shade trees preserve moisture in the soil, since less water is able to evaporate off its surface. Plus, they help to control weed growth by covering the soil with lots of dead leaves. These then degrade into nutrient-rich material (think of the trees creating their own compost for the soil they grow in). This enriches and insulates the soil.

A Peruvian study into coffee growing methods found that growing coffee in the shade improves the quality of the green beans and the end product. More importantly, the shade-grown method supports a wide range of flora and fauna offering animals and birds an excellent habitat in which to flourish. A 2013 scientific study discusses how coffee growing methods impact an area’s ecosystem. The researchers concluded that harsher farming methods led to lower biodiversity rates.

Shade-grown coffee farms not only support mammals and birds. They also sustain a broad range of vegetation, reptiles and amphibians. Since so many species are in danger of becoming extinct, preserving biodiversity is vital.

In addition, the shade trees filter carbon dioxide out of the air we breathe. They then convert it into their own chemical energy (glucose, to be precise).

As well as this, trees release oxygen into the atmosphere as a waste product. Thus, these trees play an important role in restoring the air’s balance.

The increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is something we should all be aware of. Removing carbon dioxide and releasing with oxygen makes trees fantastic tools when fighting global warming.

Now that we have discussed its environmental impact, let’s talk about shade-grown taste. A 2018 study explored how altitude, shade and temperature affect the quality and taste of coffee beans, the aroma and body in the cup. 

However, studies tend to contradict each other, and it is difficult to conclude anything concrete. This is because findings seem to be site-specific. Plus, they depend on a number of factors outside the realm of what researchers test. After all, the growing method is only one part of the process which affects the taste of your cup of coffee. Processing the beans after farmers have harvested them also plays a huge role.

And coffee taste is subjective and highly personal. Try some shade-grown coffee and let it speak for itself.

The ugly alternative.

The modern and pervasive method, sun-growing, has some major drawbacks despite on the surface appearing beneficial to farmers. They can grow a larger number of plants, leading to higher yields.

However, sun-grown coffee requires greater amounts of pesticide and fertiliser use and destroys animal habitats through deforestation. 

Why sun-grown plants are harmful to our ecosystem.

Despite the benefits of shade-growing, coffee is often considered a commodity that contributes to high deforestation rates. Earnings calls and the never-ending quest to meet analysts' quarterly earnings targets ensure large corporations will keep turning a blind eye to any of the (real) issues that affect us and the generations after us. 

In the 1970s, sun-tolerant coffee plants were manufactured to generate larger yields. This meant vast expanses of land could be grown upon, as the canopy of
trees was no longer a necessity - fewer trees equals more space to grow coffee plants. These new plants grew smaller and were (and still are) easier to harvest, increasing yields even further. Profits were put before anything else and nothing's changed since.

On a sun-grown farm the lack of biodiversity surrounding the coffee plants poses a huge risk and the fact that they usually grow as a monocrop makes it even more damaging. Without the help of trees and valuable insect-eating birds, the plant is more vulnerable to insects and other pests. Therefore, farmers use more chemicals to fight off these added threats while the lack of shelter means that rain easily washes away any nutrient-dense topsoil.

To counteract this, extra fertiliser needs to be regularly added to the soil. When rainfall washes these fertilisers into rivers and lakes, a phenomenon called eutrophication can occur. Eutrophication involves huge amounts of algae forming on the surface of ponds and lakes. These layers of algae spoil the quality of the water as it forms a thick barrier to light and oxygen. As well as killing the organisms which live in these lakes, it can also pose a risk to
human health.

India’s shade-grown plantations.

The majority of Indian coffee beans are shade-grown.

These plantations are valuable as they support a plethora of native bird species
that flourish in the multilayered canopy the shade trees provide.

It is not only birds that benefit. A study conducted for the Climate Change Management Handbook, found that shade-grown coffee farms in Kerala house 10 rare, threatened frog species and counted 85 different tree species.

Conserving biodiversity is a part of Indian coffee farming culture. It is both threaded through and sustained by customs and religious beliefs. Here, smallholder farmers can be described as guardians of nature and its balance.

India's coffee-growing regions are among the 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world - it goes without saying that areas like these need to be protected from destruction.

What can we do on a cup-by-cup basis?

The easy answer to the above would be drinking more shade-grown coffee. Unfortunately, by looking at a bag, its often impossible to 

Although there are exceptions, most beans cultivated in India, El Salvador, Peru, Panama, and Guatemala will be shade-grown.

In contrast, coffees from Costa Rica, Colombia, and Brazil are likely to be sun-grown, although, there are some farms here that use the traditional method. Generally, the bigger the farm the likelier sun-growing is (as these farms supply the huge multinationals that pay low prices, and live for end-of-quarter reporting).

In 2021, researchers estimated that every day in the UK, we drink 98 million cups of coffee. Each cup of shade-grown coffee preserves a forest area the size of your thumb or 3 square centimeters.

98 million times 3 square centimeters a day equals a lot of forest and sequestered carbon.

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