Traditionally, almost all coffee was shade grown. The coffee plant in its natural state isn’t very tolerant of direct sunlight; thus most coffee plants grow best under the shade of a canopy of trees. In an ideal setting, the leaves from the overhanging trees would decompose and compost into the soil, creating a rich, moist soil in which the coffee plants thrive. Furthermore, the trees overhead provide a home to native birds that eat many insects which would otherwise threaten the coffee plants. Coffee grown in this type of environment would need little to no fertilizers or pesticides to grow; rather, it would grow quite well on its own.
In 1972, scientists developed a new hybrid type of coffee plant. This new plant boasted a much larger crop of beans than traditional coffee plants, and in addition, the crop was easier to harvest because the plant remains small in size. Soon, coffee farms around the world were converting to the new hybrid plant. In turn, coffee farms cut down their native forests to provide direct sunlight for the hybrid coffee plants. Out of the some 6 million acres of coffee-producing land around the world, it is estimated that 60% of that land has been deforested since 1972 as a result of hybrid sun coffee plants.
The loss of forest on coffee plantations has created numerous problems. First, the migratory birds that lived in these trees no longer have a habitat. It is estimated that the population of migratory birds has declined 20% over the last ten years, mostly due to loss of habitat. The lack of trees not only interrupts the bird population. It has a direct impact on the entire ecosystem of an area. A study conducted by the University of Michigan found that shade coffee plantations support a significant number of other species of animals and insects. For example, the study noted that one tree on a shade coffee farm in Costa Rica was home to 27 different species of ants and 126 species of beetles. When the shade trees disappear, so do other animals and insects, upsetting the fragile balance of the natural ecosystem.
Another problem with sun grown coffee is the enormous amount of synthetic chemicals required to grow it. Because there aren’t as many native birds present to eat the insects, pesticides are required to keep the insect population down. Sun coffee plants are also treated with chemical fertilizers, because there is no canopy of trees present to provide organic matter that would naturally enrich the soil. Furthermore, plantations growing sun coffee must also rely on the use of herbicides to keep down the weeds that grow in the increased sunlight (shade coffee plantations don’t have as many problems with weeds, because the weeds don’t grow well in the shady conditions that the coffee plants favor).
All these chemicals that are required to farm the hybrid sun coffee plants create an enormous amount of runoff, which poisons downstream waterways due to runoff and threatens the health of workers on the coffee plantations. The lack of trees has also created serious soil erosion problems. It has become clear that this type of coffee farming is not sustainable.
Traditional shade growing, however, is a self-sufficient and sustainable farming method. It promotes increased biodiversity and requires little to no fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. The Smithsonian Institute’s Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) is working to raise awareness and promote shade grown coffee through a certification process. Look for coffees that feature the SMBC’s “Bird Friendly” seal of approval, or if you cannot find such coffees, simply look for those that specify shade grown conditions.