Somewhere in the back of our minds we store an old biological trope—all life relies on plants. But we rarely remember this when we drink our morning cup of coffee. The drink hardly resembles the plant it comes from; a coffee bean is picked, skinned, dried, roasted, and ground to unrecognizable dust before it ever reaches Tower Café. When we sip coffee, we think of Seattle-style coffee shops, European espresso bars, and Turkish cezve pots rather than the jungle that bears it.
But coffee (Coffea arabica) is first and foremost a plant. Found in the mountains of tropics worldwide, it is surrounded by the same friends and foes as all other plant life. It is because coffee interacts with animals that we get caffeine—the defensive chemical produced by coffee to ward off insect herbivores. Fortunately it does not produce enough to poison humans, and coffee’s bright berries are thus preserved for us to enjoy. And the plant’s environmental interactions extend past predatory bugs; it houses wildlife species and contributes to ecosystems in tropical habitats.
There are two major ways to cultivate coffee. Shade-grown coffee is grown under a natural canopy of trees—banana, papaya, and other plants. In contrast, a more modern type of coffee plantation consists of rows of shrubs, meticulously cared for by men and machines, fertilizers, and pesticides—an intensive cultivation yielding the same delicious result.
A farmer’s trade-off between these two methods might seem obvious. Without the energy of full light or the crop density of dedicated fields (and with potential insect and disease pests) shade coffee may appear to produce fewer berries. But despite its shortcomings, shade-grown coffee boasts a major advantage: plants can establish mutually beneficial relationships with other organisms and an array of wildlife. The trees, shrubs, and herbs it grows alongside sustain mammals and bugs that feed on these plants and indirectly support other types of life. It’s the complete ecological package.
Concrete scientific evidence exists to validate this conclusion. Stacy Philpott, a University of Toledo ecologist who studies the impact of shade coffee on wildlife, said that separate studies show how increased coffee management leads to fewer species of birds. Birds rely on shade coffee plantations when migrating south for the winter, which provide a place for them to live, forage, and breed.
Nonprofit organizations outside of academia also support the ecology of shade coffee, including Abby Ray, an associate with the Rainforest Alliance. “By bringing back natural forest cover, you’re also bringing birds back into the landscape—birds that eat coffee borers and other insects,” she said.
Intensely managed coffee’s perceived advantage also lies in a cold, hard, economic reality. While no system can rival adding truckloads of nutrients and clearing out weedy competitors, shade coffee certifiers argue that the benefits aren’t so black and white. Modernization may increase yields for a few boom years, but the soil can erode and lose all the nutrients that keep growing coffee healthy.
One solution is to compensate shade coffee farmers for any compromise in crop size, which is essentially paying to protect biodiversity. Many different certification schemes funnel premiums paid on their coffee back to programs and often farmers themselves. Other organizations certify farms as ecologically friendly, allowing them to command higher prices in the market. The Rainforest Alliance does just this and estimates that farmers receive 10-20% more for branding their coffee as shade-certified.
Local cooperative coffee mills will also often make sure their plants are harvested responsibly. Dr. Colin Orians, a Tufts professor who leads undergraduate biologists to Costa Rica every other year, says that this decentralized support for shade coffee profits many regions. “Shade coffee labels, while nice, are not a replacement for on-the-ground observation of practices,” she said. “You need to see the farm. There’s a human benefit in shade coffee in the reduction of human exposure to pesticide.”
As coffee consumers, we can best support this cause by making sure our coffee is shade-grown. Even chains like Starbucks are beginning to think about how their beans are grown—their “Shared Planet” program funds farmer support centers to teach sustainable growing methods. If you brew your own coffee, you can find shade-grown beans at specialty stores, local roasters, and even some supermarkets. Besides tasting better than wholesale bags from Dunkin Donuts, shade-grown beans support the environment in ways that buying carbon offsets or donating to Greenpeace does not.
Drinking shade coffee is as universally beneficial as it gets—for the wildlife that depends on the coffee shrub, for the rural farmers that can grow it cheaply, and for us, the exhausted temperate-dwelling masses. Do our wildlife friends in the tropics a favor and make that next cup a shaded one.