Coffee labels can be puzzling, and shade-grown coffee has been marketed as a valuable feature. But, is it any good?
If you want to learn more about shade-grown coffee, how it is different from sun-grown coffee, and valid certifications that you can trust, keep reading below.
What is shade-grown coffee?
Beyond the obvious, we don’t have a shared standard to identify shade-grown coffee. Perhaps the only certification that offers a clear definition for shade-grown coffee doesn’t aim for that. The Smithsonians’ Bird-Friendly Certification provides an acceptable conceptualization and standards because of its focus on biodiversity and protecting birds’ habitats. Additionally, it’s 100% organic because it’s free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. As birds thrive in forests with tall trees, bird-friendly coffee is always shade-grown and complies with stringent quality standards.
Indeed, rigorous certification programs add a premium to the price and can improve farmers’ income. Still, at the same time, they can add up to market pressures, climate change, and other variables that put most of the risk of the coffee business on farmers’ shoulders.
Shade Grown Coffee vs. Sun Grown Coffee
Shade-grown coffee was the conventional production method before industrialization. In this regard, Arabica coffee trees prefer lower temperatures and sun rays exposure. So, automation required faster-growing crops and producing higher yields. In this regard, shade-grown coffee falls short in both aspects.
Sadly, running after efficiency, the coffee industry sacrificed not only quality but also sustainability. Initially, we could say that sun-grown coffee was Robusta. Robusta coffee trees tend to resist the sun’s rays and adapt better to higher temperatures and lower altitudes. Additionally, it’s naturally more resistant to plagues and diseases. For this reason, it became the favorite for instant coffee. Still, early enough, companies that aimed for industrialization developed fertilizers and pesticides to produce sun-grown Arabica.
In turn, modern techniques for coffee production have been taking a massive comes from,d which is the impact they have by promoting certain industry practices over others.
From a consumer perspective, shade-grown coffee tends to be preferable for people concerned about sustainability and the health impact that pesticides and fertilizers could have. On the other hand, sun-grown coffee doesn’t have any feature that might be particularly appealing, other than its lowest price.
Benefits of Shade Grown Coffee Beans
Intuitively, we can find shade-grown coffee more appealing because it seems to be more sustainable. Still, it’s crucial to understand how it’s more sustainable and its potential benefits.
Healthier working conditions
Farmers and workers don’t need to work in constant exposure to toxic agrochemicals, nor in a polluted environment. Shade-grown coffee uses fewer pesticides if any. Additionally, as the soil is richer in nutrients, coffee trees require fewer fertilizers when farmers decide to use them.
Most of the time, shade-grown coffee is organic, so the environment around the farm doesn’t suffer from water pollution, which provides a healthier environment for coffee workers.
Rainforests are known for their vibrant wildlife. Growing coffee inside rainforests promotes biodiversity, making coffee more sustainable.
Birds, insects, and even big predators thrive in shade-grown coffee estates, protecting valuable species to reduce the industry footprint and lead a sustainable business through example.
Boosts long term production
Low use of chemicals and fertilizers protects the soil from erosion and depletion. Additionally, tall trees and an active ecosystem enrich the earth and maintain a more balanced ecosystem, protecting the coffee trees from plagues.
Disadvantages of Shade Grown Coffee
Above I started talking about putting more pressure on the farmers’ side as the primary concern without using these chemical products. Let me explain it in further detail. Shade-grown coffee can be more challenging for three main reasons.
Lower yields and slower growth
Arabica coffee trees growing below tall trees have nutrient-rich soil at their disposal but grow slower than trees in industrialized estates that use agrochemicals. Additionally, farmers tend to be less efficient without using these chemical products, which means that they obtain less coffee from the same land than industrialized sun-grown coffee estates.
The market offers a premium for shade-grown coffee, trying to make it profitable, but it’s still risky for farmers to depend on higher prices. The latter is particularly true if consumers aren’t willing to pay for premium prices on coffee.
Sun-grown crops tend to be smoothly organized so that machinery and coffee pickers can go through the plantation quickly and efficiently. In contrast, shade-grown coffee farms are similar to forests, which means that coffee pickers deal with demanding physical activity and have to protect themselves from wild animals. Arguably, this isn’t worse than dealing with exposure to toxic agrochemicals, but walking through a forest-like coffee plantation is strenuous, to say the least.
Biodiversity tends to take care of plagues, creating a more balanced ecosystem. Still, some experts report fungal problems in shade-grown plantations, which can lead to fungicides to protect the shade tree coffee.
Shade-grown coffee on balance
The coffee industry can’t survive without sun-grown coffee at this point. Abandoning sun-grown coffee overnight would have dire economic and social consequences for most producers around the world. On the other hand, the planet can’t stand the heavy use of agrochemicals for too long. The most reasonable solution seems to be adopting more sustainable practices whenever possible while developing safer and less toxic agrochemicals to reduce the impact of modern farms until we can advance towards a more advanced and sustainable coffee industry.
For you and me, who love to drink coffee, this will mean to be willing to pay more for our coffee, albeit with a cleaner conscience -and a cleaner planet.