Saturday, March 20, 2021

It’s Just Coffee. Right?

It’s Just Coffee. Right? 

Coffee may very well be the world’s most widely traded tropical agricultural commodity. It’s certainly one of them. Twenty to twenty-five million families around the world make their living growing coffee. And, by most estimates, more than 2.25-billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every day.

If you’re like me, you start your day; every day; with a couple of cups of coffee. (I’m addicted.) I often enjoy my early morning joe seated at the table reading emails and online news, while observing the birds at my feeder station as they come and go. When the weather permits, I like to enjoy my coffee sitting outside, where I often just close my eyes and listen.

Several mornings ago, I was at the table savoring my first cup, while reading the Cornell Chronicle online, when I came upon an article written by Pat Leonard; a staff writer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, titled, ‘Shade-grown coffee could save birds, if people drank it.’

I remember thinking, “Shade-grown coffee? Save birds? What’s that about?” So, I wasn’t at all surprised when, in the article, the author quoted Alicia Williams, a former research assistant at the Lab and lead author of “Tapping Birdwatchers to Promote Bird-Friendly Coffee Consumption and Conserve Birds” (published March 1st in the journal ‘People and Nature’) as saying, “One of the most significant constraints to purchasing bird-friendly coffee among those surveyed was a lack of awareness.”

I know I’d never given it much thought. I always assumed that, like any other orchard or vineyard, a successful coffee plantation required a site that provided full sun. I was wrong.

Most of the Coffee Consumed Today is Sun-Grown

Sun-grown varieties are newer, hybrid types of coffee, which were developed specifically to increase crop production. Coffee trees are planted at high densities with little or no canopy cover. When planted in direct sunlight, these hybrids grows especially fast, providing a quick return for growers (higher short-term yields). What’s more, these novel cultivars produce smaller plants which, when planted in rows, are easily harvested mechanically. Opponents allege, however, that this reduces local employment (according to some by as much as 90%).

Whether coffee is shade- or sun-grown actually plays a vital role in the balance of some very delicate South and Central American ecosystems. Sun-grown coffee farmers clear vast tracts of rainforest before high-density, open row planting can occur. Once the land has been deforested, water runoff, erosion, and exposure to the sun rapidly degrade the soil. As soil health diminishes, increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers are needed to sustain yields. More pesticides are used as well because, when grown as a monocrop, coffee plants (like all plants) become more susceptible to pests and diseases. In fact, by many accounts, more chemical sprays are used on coffee than on any other crop except tobacco. Production generally continues for about 12 – 15 years, after which yields wane. At that point, the soil is no longer usable for coffee growing.

Perhaps the most serious consequence of deforestation is loss of biodiversity. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute calls the extraordinary biodiversity of tropical ecosystems their ‘most conspicuous trait’ and contends that ‘a few hectares of tropical rainforest may be home to more species of plants, fungi, animals, and microorganisms than all of the United States and Canada combined.’ Clearing rainforest for short-term, intensive coffee production furthers what has become an alarming reduction of critical wildlife habitat, which in turn, is contributing to a rapid and significant decline in the population of a huge number of plant and animal species.

Today, 37 of the 50 countries in the world with the highest deforestation rates are major coffee producers.

Benefits of Shade-Grown Varieties

Coffee literally evolved in rainforests, shrouded under sun-filtering shade trees of varying heights. And, interestingly enough, most varieties of coffee, including all heirloom varieties, are naturally intolerant of direct sunlight. So, maybe the best way to grow great coffee is to plant within an existing forest canopy.

In fact, growing coffee under a diverse canopy of native forest trees in dense to moderate shade has been the traditional method of coffee farming for centuries and, prior to the 1970s, how all coffee was grown. So, I find it more than a little ironic that shade-grown coffee is now viewed as a promising alternative.

Not only do rainforest canopy trees protect the coffee plants from direct sun, they enhance the soil by fixing nitrogen and they mulch it with their fallen leaves, which helps retain soil moisture. Wildlife that are displaced or at risk as a result of deforestation elsewhere, including bats and Neotropical migratory birds that breed in Canada and the U.S. during the summer, find refuge. The bats and birds, in turn, provide natural insect control with their constant foraging. The result is a habitat conserving, sustainable method of farming, which uses little or no chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists 386 bird species as Neotropical migrants. These include songbirds (certain warblers, thrushes, tanagers, and vireos), shorebirds (certain sandpipers, plovers, and terns), some raptors (certain hawks, kites and vultures), and a few types of waterfowl (e.g. blue-winged and green-winged teal)

Better-Tasting Coffee

Coffee grown in shade may take longer to mature, but the slower growing times contribute to the development of more flavorful sugar in the coffee beans. As a result, shade grown coffee is naturally sweeter and decidedly less bitter than coffee grown in full sun. In other words, it tastes better.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

17 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Simple, every-day choices can have quite an impact. Thanks Richard!

  2. TSM says:

    Thanks for the informative article. You converted me to a shaded-coffee-bean drinker. Also, you make an important point that is now widely recognized in that industrial-farming practices such as mono-culture crops, soil compaction, and heavy applications of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides have destroyed large amounts of soil in the world. Farming practices need to be modified so to enhance soil development, not destroy it and have to rely on artificial respiration practices mentioned above to to keep crops going.

  3. Bob Meyer says:

    So, how do we find out which coffees are the shade variety ?
    I don’t see any delineation on any of the espresso or French roasts i buy.

    • Todd Miller says:

      Good question. I searched the web including my favorite green coffee website (Sweet Marias) and found little info on whether coffee beans were shade grown. I did find a website ( where if you type in their search box “shade grown” a dozen or so coffee growers were listed. I’m going to try several coffees from this site to see if they are as good or better than non-shade grown beans.

      • Bob Meyer says:

        thanks for the reply.. if you find anything out… brands, outlets etc, please let me knw.

        • Eleanor Worth says:

          I buy shade-grown coffee from The Arbor Day Foundation. They have a “coffee club” subscription to get regular shipments of coffee, which I do, or you can do a one-time purchase. Thanks for spreading the word re the benefits of shade-grown!

    • Chad says:

      Search “bird friendly coffee”, there’s plenty of info out there. I buy Birds & Beans.

  4. Vanessa says:

    Awesome article! Here is a list of brands selling shade grown coffee that I found:

    I am a tea drinker, but am super supportive of any efforts to slow deforestation. I’ll pass this one around, therefore 🙂

  5. Sue Nealon says:

    I love coffee. I.m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never purchased shade grown coffee beans, After reading your article, I realized that we need to be more aware of where our food comes from. Thank you very much for opening my eyes.

  6. Peter says:

    Richard are you saying we should stop drinking coffee? There is no way there is enough shade grown coffee for all of us.

    • Anita Dingman says:

      There could be enough shade grown coffee if people started buying it. The growers will plant what people buy.

      • Wayne Miller says:

        Absolutely! Demand will increase the price and spur production. Cheap food can be worth what we pay for it.
        Also, some places like Trader Joe’s sell varieties tagged as Shade Grown. And since shade growing is coffee’s natural habitat and that being less of mono cropping regime, it lends itself to organic production. So a alternative way to get shade grown is to get beans labeled Organic.
        Then there’s Fair Trade which notes the farmer, usually smaller scale, was paid a living wage for their crop.

        • Bill c says:

          Check out Royal Blue Organics / Cafe Mam out of Eugene OR. checks all the boxes mentioned above. Been our go to for fifteen years.

    • Boreas says:


      Demand should drive production.

      Educate people with facts instead of corporate and government lies and they will usually make the right choice. Remember CFC’s? Nearly 200 countries have banned their use. A few billion motivated people can create quite a ruckus. Same with palm oil plantations, widespread pesticide use, etc., etc..

  7. Anne Fiscarelli says:

    Also check out non-profit Coffee Kids, now run by HRN Stiftung, for lots of well-informed data regarding global coffee production as well as an environmental and humanitarian approach towards the coffee trade and coffee-growing communities.

    Thanks for the great article Richard!

  8. Stan Scharf says:

    Here is a surprising fact from Wikipedia (Soybeans/protein):

    All spermatophytes, except for the grass-cereal family, contain 7S (vicilin) and 11S (legumin) soy protein-like globulin storage proteins; or only one of these globulin proteins. S denotes Svedberg, sedimentation coefficients. Oats and rice are anomalous in that they also contain a majority of soybean-like protein.[28] Cocoa, for example, contains the 7S globulin, which contributes to cocoa/chocolate taste and aroma,[29][30][31] whereas***** coffee beans (coffee grounds) contain the 11S globulin responsible for coffee’s aroma and flavor.[32][33]

  9. Peter says:

    I grew up on a farm that grew a large assortment of vegetables and nothing grew well in the shade. In old growth forests nothing grows in complete shade. It takes direct sun to promote photosynthesis and growth. By growing in the shade it is going to take more than twice the acreage to get the same production as sunlight.

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