Traditionally, coffee trees produce the best beans when grown in the shade. To understand what shade-grown coffee is, it's best for us to first know about the two types of coffee produced in the world.
- Arabica coffee consists of almost 80% of the world's entire coffee production.
- Robusta coffee, on the other hand, is made from robusta beans and accounts for nearly all of the remaining 20%
There are other species, but those are insignificant on the world's coffee stage.
Shade-Grown vs. Sun-Grown
For commercial purposes, there are two ways to cultivate and grow each type of coffee bean. Robusta coffee beans grow under direct sunlight, making them a sun-grown coffee variety. Sun-grown coffee started in the mid-1970s as a way to improve the ease of farming maintenance and harvesting.
Typical coffee plants require shade for ideal growth.
However, farmers developed sun-tolerant coffee plants that produce two to three times more coffee than shade-grown coffee. Of course, more coffee equates to more money, making sense that this new farming method was a desirable option. However, this new method has shown to be unsustainable with a constant need for consistent chemicals, which harms the environment. Erosion and pollution are not the only issues, but this growth method also leads to lower quality coffee beans. The transition to creating this new type of coffee farms led to removing nearly 60% of shade trees throughout 6 million acres of rainforest habitat.
To combat the negative consequences, Earth-conscious farmers cultivate shade-grown coffee. Various types of shade trees promote a natural ecosystem used to produce shade-grown coffee. Arabica beans are grown in the shade, so it is no surprise that they fall under the shade-grown coffee category. A habitat covered with vegetation to provide shade is a perfect, natural place for coffee plants to thrive. Many believe that shade-grown coffee plants produce higher quality and better-tasting coffee beans. Growing coffee in the shade leads to more complex and rich flavors than other coffees due to longer ripening times. Shaded coffee grows in a traditional natural habitat, so it's not too surprising that this mass production method would decrease the taste and quality of sun coffee. This massive sun exposure also harms the environment.
Imagine farmers using herbicides and spraying this type of chemical to increase the mass production of coffee. The need to use chemicals results from the fact that sun coffee plantations do not provide the coffee plants the nutrients they need naturally. Growing coffee under direct sunlight helps produce large quantities but at the expense of a more traditionally natural process. However, growing coffee under the shade is a type of coffee farming that does not require chemical use as shade trees provide fertilization. Shade coffee trees live two times longer than sun-grown coffee due to the abnormal increase in the plant's life.
Unfortunately, there is not a shade-grown coffee certification or program for coffee farming. Although farmers cannot become certified in growing shade coffee at this time, any rainforest or health-conscious consumer can check for other environmental certifications. The Rainforest Alliance provides various certification programs for coffee farmers such as Bird Friendly, Fair Trade, or USDA Organic certified. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has also developed biodiversity-based standards.
Types of Shade
Not all coffee growth systems have equal shade management.
As you can guess, this category provides no shade or tree canopy. This type of coffee farming requires the most pest control, such as pesticides, which helps soil impacted by erosion.
Shaded monoculture provides approximately 10-30% of shade. Only one or two shade trees cover coffee plants. While technically, this category can be considered shade-grown, the minimal biodiversity may not meet consumers' requirements.
Commercial polyculture is a type of shade that gives about 30-60% of shade cover. Timber and fruit trees provide the most amount of shade for coffee plants. One of the downsides here is a nutrient loss. This loss is due to the removal of fruit and canopy trees to increase room for coffee plants. Herbicides and fertilizers often help replace and maintain these nutrients in the soil.
Traditional polyculture is a category of shade that provides approximately 60-90% of shade cover. This type of habitat is full of forest trees and various plant species. Fruit and vegetables frequently in this type of habitat.
Layers of vegetation provide about 70-100% of shade cover. This diverse habitat is ideal for growing coffees. This shade level does not require pesticides, fertilizers, or other chemical interventions.
What do birds have to do with coffee farms?
Shade-grown coffee can be much more environmentally friendly than coffee grown without shade. Various types of plants and bird species thrive in the forest-like environment created by shade coffee farms. Just one shade-grown coffee farm can house, on average, 100 types of plants, 13-58 kinds of trees, 609 forms of insects, 28 mammal species, and almost 200 different bird species. Not only is bird-friendly coffee organic, but being bird-friendly provides an environment for resident and migratory birds. Bird-friendly coffee farms can be found all around the world, from Mexico to Ethiopia.
Shade coffee farms consist of a high diversity system, including birds, lizards, plants, and insects. This biodiversity creates healthy environmental sites, which provide food to these organisms through shade cover from shade trees. A lack of shade trees in coffee plantations, however, decreases biodiversity! By developing a bird-friendly environment, the birds protect the plants from pest infestations. Bees, however, are acceptable as they supply pollination services. One study in Guatemala showed that not having birds around these plants led to more insects damaging coffee leaves. (Greenberg et al., 2000).
Suitable for the soil, too!
Shade-grown coffee is good for plants and birds, but shade coffee farms improve soil quality by decreasing soil erosion. The soil does not need fertilizers because nutrients for the coffee comes from the trees that drop foliage onto the ground. The heavy use of herbicides and insecticides is a leading cause of water and soil contamination, which can be harmful for human consumption. Also, these farms decrease carbon from the atmosphere. However, coffee that is grown without shade produces substantially more nitrates, which negatively influences the plant's ability to consume water. Speaking of water, coffee farms without requiring pesticides can enter the soil and negatively impact nearby watersheds.
Does Starbucks have shade-grown coffee?
Shade-grown coffee has become so popular that Starbucks has added it to its menu! Starbucks obtains its shade-grown coffee from farmers in southern Mexico. This area is one of the most biodiverse places in North America, full of plantations farmed by almost 900 farmers. From this deal, farmers have increased their income, with Starbucks purchasing approximately 1.7 million pounds of this coffee yearly. Starbucks sells this exceptional coffee as a medium roast.