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One of the newest buzzwords on the coffee stage is “shade grown coffee”. Shade grown coffee isn’t new. In fact, until only a few decades ago, shade grown coffee represented the bulk of coffee beans sold on the world coffee market. The coffee plant is a natural shade lover, growing best in the partial shade afforded by an overgrowing canopy of rain forest plants. That canopy protects the coffee plant from harsh sunlight that stunts its growth, withers its berries, reduces its harvest and eventually kills it.
Shade grown coffee is, however more expensive to grow – at least in the short run. Growing coffee in the shade requires that coffee growers also cultivate the canopies that shelter their plants. It means that less land is devoted to producing coffee beans, since part of it has to be given over to growing other plants. The advent of technically engineered coffee plants that thrive in the sun represented a major revolution in coffee agriculture. Because there was no need to grow plants to shade the coffee trees, farmers could devote more and more land to growing coffee trees, increasing their productivity and theoretically leading to higher profits for the coffee plantations and farmers. By switching from shade grown coffee to sun coffee, the plantations could grow twice as many plants in the same acre of land. In addition, when they were managed with chemicals, trees grown in full sun could yield up to three times the amount of beans per tree than shade grown coffee plants.
Unfortunately, there was both an ecological and an economic downfall to moving away from shade grown coffee. The sheltering canopy provided more than just shade for the coffee trees. Those plants provided shelter for migratory birds and other predators who feed on pests that affect coffee plants. They help to fix nitrogen in the soil, and nitrogen is a natural fertilizer. With the shade trees gone, farmers found that they had to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers to get a similar yield per tree from their coffee crops. The increase in land devoted to growing sun loving coffee trees also had an unexpected effect on the law of supply and demand. The increased production caused a glut of coffee beans on the market – though it was, to be fair, not the only cause of the overabundance of coffee – which brought down prices being paid for coffee beans.
Farmers also found another disadvantage to the move away from shade grown coffee. Most family farms that grew coffee in the shade also grew a diverse variety of other plants: avocadoes, cacao, fruit and trees for firewood. That diversity spread the family income over a large variety of products. When prices for coffee fell, there is still income from other sources and other produce. Farms that gave over all of their available land to growing coffee in the sun were seriously affected by the drop in coffee prices, since their other sources of income were gone. Many small farmers faced a double whammy from the abundance of sun coffee. Moving from shade grown crops to sun coffee increases the costs of production. The sun grown coffee plants require intensive farming – applications of fertilizer and pesticides and year round cultivation. It was too expensive for many of the small farmers, who continued to use the traditional shade grown techniques, keeping their production low. As prices fell because of the supply glut of coffee beans from the sun coffee plantations, many were driven out of business altogether because they could not recoup their expenses at harvest time.
The effects of transforming large areas of the rain forest into sunny coffee plantations has had an effect on the world’s ecological health as well – and not just in the countries where the rain forests were denuded in favor of coffee fields. The chemical fertilizers and pesticides poison the soil and the water and contribute to health problems for the workers. The lack of shelter for migrating birds has driven down their population. One study found that there are 94-97% fewer bird species in sunny coffee plantations than in the more natural shade grown coffee fields. As the number of hectares of rain forest has decreased, so has the entire world’s population of migratory birds.
The move toward sustainable coffee growing practices reflects consumer awareness of the ecological and economic effects of sun coffee. By committing to buy only shade grown coffee, consumers can positively affect the health of the rain forests and the standard of living of those workers who make their living growing coffee. Buying shade grown coffee is good for the world. But there’s another reason to drink shade grown coffee.
Most experts agree that shade grown coffee is appreciably better in taste than coffee grown in full sun. Plants grown in shade take longer to develop. The slower growing times contribute to the development of flavorful sugar and acides in the coffee beans. Shade grown coffee is naturally sweeter and less harsh than coffee grown in full sun – in short, it simply tastes better. And the price difference is surprisingly small, especially in a culture that is willing to pay $3 and more for a single cup of gourmet coffee. You can substitute a can of shade grown coffee for your usual sun coffee at the supermarket for about the price of one specialty coffee at your favorite coffee shop. One cup of coffee a week – it’s a small price to pay for a better world.