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It’s just coffee, right?

Coffee blooms in the foreground of the vista at a shade farm in Chiapas, Mexico. (Provided photo — Shalene Jha, associate professor Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin)

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 1 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.

Coffee trees grow in the shade of taller trees on a shade farm in Chiapas, Mexico. (Provided photo — Shalene Jha, associate professor Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas at Austin)

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 grow 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 rain forest 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 to 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 rain forest may be home to more species of plants, fungi, animals, and microorganisms than all of the United States and Canada combined.” Clearing rain forest 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 rain forests, 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 rain forest 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 that 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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