Coffee originated in the forests of Ethiopia grown under a diverse tree canopy. This shade tolerant plant has travelled around the world and taken up residence in the tropical regions of Africa, Asia, Central and South America that match the specific habitat requirements of the plant with a balanced recipe of sun, humidity and rain. Somewhere along the way, this understory forest species became planted in open fields with rows and rows of coffee plants and little else – a monoculture which, as with most monocultures, requires intensive management including heavy doses of agrochemicals. This coffee monoculture is called “sun coffee” to distinguish it from coffee grown interspersed with other types of trees and vegetation called “shade-grown coffee” or just “shade coffee” for short.
Coffee is naturally an agroforestry crop that can thrive under a canopy of diverse shade trees. Decades of research have shown that shade coffee can provide a refuge for wildlife, enhance ecosystem services like pollination and pest management, sequester carbon and, overall, is better for the ecosystem and environment compared to sun coffee. Even with all these benefits, the trend in most of the world has been to replace shade coffee with sun coffee. There is no real market for shade coffee because there is little-to-no demand. Few consumers know about it and not enough of us within the coffee industry are driving the discussion and research around its benefits.
Somewhere from seed to cup, the thread of the storyline of shade coffee is broken.
The way that coffee farms are managed can have a huge impact on the level of biodiversity that a landscape can support. The reasons for this transition are complex.
Coffee was swept up in the tornado of the Green Revolution in the late 1960s, which advocated for growing monocultures with high doses of chemicals, increasing yields but at the expense of the environment. New varietals of sun-tolerant coffee plants that were higher yielding were propagated. More agrochemicals led to more fruit sets for the coffee plants and therefore higher yields, at least in the short term. But the removal of other trees on the farm disrupts the natural flow and support of the ecosystem; without the trees to provide nutrients to the soil, chemical inputs are needed. And without the trees to provide habitat for the wildlife and birds that prey on insect pests, pesticides are needed. The farm becomes caught up in the dependency of the chemical treadmill from which it is hard to break free. To maintain a viable income, farmers must find a balance between controlling fungal diseases and coffee pests, managing trees and vegetation within the farms, all while improving their crop quality and productivity.
There is a trade-off between ensuring farms are productive and ensuring that the coffee produced on them is done so sustainably. But with added maintenance comes added cost and a major obstacle for encouraging this is the lack of incentive, and potential risk of a temporary decrease in yield and therefore income. Often it seems that the onus is on the producer – obviously a pivotal and necessary stakeholder in the coffee value chain, but not the only participant or beneficiary.
The rest of us – importers, roasters and consumers – have to be willing to invest too. The challenge is that we don’t yet have the mechanisms in place to support shade coffee farms or to incentivize farmers to grow shade coffee.
Regenerative agriculture is a new buzz word that refers to growing crops in a more environmentally friendly way as consumers are becoming more aware of the toll that heavy chemicals and monocultures have on the ecosystem. Shade coffee, a form of regenerative agriculture, is not new – farmers have grown shade coffee for a long time.
We must meet the challenge of finding ways to tell the story of shade coffee and support this crop that intertwines so many livelihoods and the environments in which it’s grown. It is the environmentally friendly way to grow coffee.
The first step is awareness.
Mandi is an ecologist and research scientist who has worked in the coffee industry for over a decade. She is interested in sustainable agriculture as a means to provide wildlife habitat, foster ecosystem services, and conserve biodiversity, while simultaneously providing for human livelihoods.
She has led research studies in coffee-growing regions of India, Costa Rica, and Mexico. Mandi completed her postdoctoral research with the Bird Friendly coffee program at the Smithsonian Institution and taught classes in coffee, agroecology, and food systems at Columbia University.
Mandi continually seeks to build bridges between academia and industry and collaborates with various actors across the coffee value chain. She is leading the Knowledge Transfer Project (KTP) at Falcon to identify and implement methodologies for measuring and mitigating carbon emissions in the coffee supply chain.