Ah, coffee. That steamy mug of comfort that urges many of us out of bed every morning. For true coffee lovers, it's much more than just a caffeine source - it's a life enhancer. So what could possibly make it even more satisfying to consume this liquid love? Perhaps knowing that its production benefits our planet's ecological health and contributes to the reversal of climate change.
Not all coffee is created equal. Traditionally, all coffee was grown in the shade of nitrogen-fixing trees, contributing to healthy ecosystems in some of the largest biodiversity hotspots in the world. But in the early 1970s, new hybrid varieties of coffee were developed; their smaller beans were easier to harvest and allowed for higher yields. These varieties grew best in direct sunlight.
Like many other mass-produced consumables, conventional coffee farms often involve
considerable environmental damage
: creating space for a vast monoculture entails cutting down millions of native trees, and thus destroying the habitat of endemic species. Now, however, more consumers are demanding organic shade-grown coffee: in the U.S., the market for such beans is currently about $30 million.
A local co-op worker harvests wild coffee in Ethiopia. PC: Indrias Getachew
Coffee is an evergreen shrub that
captures and stores atmospheric carbon
. Shade-grown coffee thrives without chemical fertilizers, and crop diversity protects plants from pests and invasive species, reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides. Additionally, native birds naturally control insect populations. Shade-grown farms support around 150 different species of migratory birds, compared to the 20 to 50 species on non-shaded farms. A study at Utrecht University in the Netherlands
compared shaded and conventional coffee farms
and found higher numbers of butterflies and more species richness in areas of shade-grown coffee.
During the COP21 Paris Climate talks in 2015,
a side session at the Global Landscapes Forum
focused on the issue of coffee farming and climate change. The coffee plant is extremely sensitive to changes in precipitation and temperature, so global climate change
poses a major threat
to the international coffee industry. Yet that industry holds great potential to help reverse climate change by shifting its practices away from conventional, monoculture farms and increasing the scale of its shade-grown operations. Compared to conventional farms, shaded organic coffee farms sequester more than twice the amount of carbon per acre. They also contribute to
because the air is cooler and more humid in the surrounding region.
Shade-grown coffee supports healthy ecosystems. PC: Conservation.org
People around the world consume a lot of coffee: 24.6 million kilos of the stuff each day, according to the International Coffee Organization. Because of this high demand, the coffee industry has enormous influence over the way other commodity crops are produced. As the challenges brought by a changing climate intensify, coffee farmers who practice sustainable growing practices, such as shade-growing, will be in the best position to cope. In buying shade-grown coffee, consumers signal to the industry that they are aware of the ecological benefits and want to support these sustainable farming practices. Can you imagine a better excuse to pour that second cup in the morning?
To find shade-grown coffee, check out these resources*:
*With some exceptions, the country of origin is an indicator. Coffee produced in El Salvador, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Sumatra, New Guinea and Ethiopia is primarily shade-grown. Coffees from Colombia, Brazil and Costa Rica are typically "sun" coffees.