Understanding the benefits of shade-grown coffee

Josephine Walbank
February 15, 2022
shade-grown coffee

Until the 1970s, the majority of coffee grew under a thick canopy of trees. Known as “shade-grown coffee”, it utilised an assortment of trees to create an ecologically diverse environment that allowed coffee plants to flourish.

However, pressure to increase production led many coffee farmers to switch to growing sun-resilient varieties. As a result, many farmers cut down the canopy of shade trees and adopted “sun-grown” methods in their place.

But these sun-resilient varieties came at a cost. Not only did producers have to pay for fertilisers and pesticides, but the deforestation on such a large scale caused water run-off and soil erosion.

As sustainability becomes an increasing priority, there has been a resurgence of interest in the traditional shade-grown practice. Read on to find out more about shade-grown coffee, and its chief benefits for the coffee sector.

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shade-grown coffee

What is shade-grown coffee?

The term “shade-grown” refers to coffee that grows as in nature, under the canopy of taller trees.

Often, this happens in an “agroforest” setup where coffee trees are planted alongside native trees to replicate the indigenous rainforest environment. This creates an optimal growing environment for most coffee varieties.

Coffee has grown wildly in the shade of other trees for thousands of years. It was also farmed following these traditional methods for generations.

The switch to sun-grown coffee was made because it tends to produce higher yields. Subsequently, this provides farmers with a higher profit. 

Having said that, the technique required land to be cleared so coffee could be planted in rows of direct sunlight. However, full-sun varieties require chemical fertilisers and have resulted in the loss of land. 

Notably, in all of Central America, sun cultivation of coffee has led to a 2.5 million-acre loss of land.

Only since the first Sustainable Coffee Congress of 1996 has the modern industry focused on returning to shade-grown practices on ecological grounds.

This landmark event brought together 270 people from 19 countries. Attendees represented the entire value chain of the coffee industry, and the aim was to discuss sustainable coffee production practices.

From the conference, general guidelines for environmentally-friendly shade-grown coffee were set as a reference point for the industry.

Generally, shade-grown coffee benefits from the cooler temperatures it creates. Much the same as with high-altitude grown coffee, the cherries can then develop and ripen at a slower rate.

This often allows more complex sugars and lipids to arise than would in rapid, sun-grown coffee, leading to a high-quality cup.

shade-grown coffee

What are the benefits of shade-grown coffee?

Growing coffee in a space that replicates a natural forest may offer many environmental benefits, both for the crop and its farmer.

Not only does it help prevent erosion and landslides, but it also helps retain moisture in the soil and creates a natural habitat for insects and birds.

Furthermore, it contributes and enhances access to a deeper stratum of nutrients and assists with carbon sequestration – which can be up to eight times the carbon stored by full sun crops.

As global temperatures continue to rise, coffee farmers are losing land to grow. Many of the pests that prey on coffee crops prefer the warming climate.

Two of the biggest problems for coffee farmers are coffee leaf rust and the coffee borer beetle. These are becoming more widespread and more damaging in warmer environments.

As temperatures have risen, the breeding grounds for the coffee borer beetle have spread.

Previously, they were prevalent in Central Africa. However, since the 1980s, coffee borer beetles have been found in all coffee growing regions except Hawaii, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea.

The good news is agroforests of shade-grown coffee support significantly larger bird and bat populations – the best natural predators for this treatment-resistant pest.

In fact, the symbiotic link between healthy bird diversity and shade-grown coffee is so strong the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center offers a Bird Friendly Certification. This is the only certified guarantee of shade-grown coffee globally available.

Equally, whether by higher altitude or by shade-growing, coffee leaf rust struggles to reproduce and spread rapidly across farms in cooler locations.

Generally, shade-grown coffee may be of better quality. Consequently, it may attract a better price further along the value chain, and farmers can charge more.

It is worth knowing that while the farmer may benefit from a better product and price, this boost in profits may not always be passed down to farmworkers.

The workers are often paid by the bag for their labour. Harvesting cherries from shaded crops is usually harder than it would be from an open, densely planted sun farm.

Direct trade with reputable businesses is the best way to ensure ethical practice throughout your supply chain. Therefore, it is always important to remember to keep human rights in mind as well when sourcing your green coffee.

roasted coffee beans

Why should roasters source shade-grown coffee?

Recent surveys revealed 88% of potential customers want businesses to help them improve their environmental and social footprint.

Coffee is no exception. In fact, coffee drinkers are prepared to pay an average of $1.36 more per pound of coffee to ensure it is produced in an eco-friendly and ethically responsible way.

For this reason, shade-grown coffee can be very marketable to customers.

Opposed to vast sun-resilient, intensively grown mono-cultures, the ecological and environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee are clear.

By making a conscious effort to source and promote shade-grown coffee, your business can show it cares for the future of the coffee-growing communities that work alongside it.

Furthermore, by choosing certified bird-friendly coffee, you are showing customers your business is committed to the long-term health of the planet.

sustainable coffee bags

Equally important is the sustainability of your coffee packaging. By switching to recyclable coffee bags, you can provide customers with peace of mind regarding their environmental and social footprint.

At MTPak Coffee, we have a wealth of information on our Education Centre. We can guide roasters and coffee shop owners towards more sustainable practices and ethical sourcing when it comes to packaging and roasting.

In addition, MTPak Coffee offers a range of recyclable packaging features and sustainable coffee bags. When made with kraft of rice paper, we can provide packaging options that are completely recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable.

For information on our coffee packaging, contact our team.

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