This Chinese farm might be a little overcast, but those vast expanses of coffee plants mean only one thing -- monoculture.

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Growing Coffee in the Sun

Two-thirds of the world's coffee comes from Latin America and the Caribbean [source: NSCC]. When most of us imagine these coffee farms -- if we ever do -- we see long stretches of shrubs bathing in sunlight. This type of cultivation is called monoculture -- a single plant species dominating a stretch of crop land.

Lots of coffee beans are sun-grown in this way, especially the largest, mass-produced brands. But it's not the only way to grow coffee. The monoculture method has only been around for about 30 years. The traditional way of growing coffee is in the shade, under a canopy of trees and fauna. This "rustic" technique creates an arguably tastier cup of coffee, allows for organic growing methods free from pesticides and herbicides, decreases the need for complex farm machinery, and provides excellent housing for countless plant and animal species. Shade-grown coffee is actually one of the greatest crops for maintaining a diverse ecosystem.

So why the switch to sun? Business, of course. Coffee plants grow faster and more plentiful in sunny conditions, and clearing other vegetation from the land leaves much more space for coffee plants; but sun-grown coffee has always been overly susceptible to disease. In the 1970s, researchers developed sun-tolerant coffee strains, along with chemicals that could protect coffee from the harmful effects of sun, opening the door to a whole new world of java. A sun-grown coffee bush can produce up to three times more beans than a bush in the shade, and more of those bushes can occupy a given plot of land, meaning higher profits for the farm and the brand [source: NSCC].

But that's just part of the story. It turns out that growing coffee in the sun instead of the shade has some pretty devastating effects on the environment.