The "shade-grown" label on Kona coffee says a lot about coffee growing as a whole.

Photo courtesy of Hawaii Department of Agriculture

What is shade coffee?

Most morning rituals are pretty harmless. There are few, if any, negative impacts of brushing your teeth and buttering your toast. But one morning ritual practiced around the world is causing far more harm than most of us realize: coffee consumption.

The morning cup of dark, bitter heaven is clearing rainforest, polluting groundwater and causing significant reductions in biodiversity.

It wasn't always this way. When coffee was discovered in Africa hundreds of years ago, it wasn't doing any harm [source: NSCC]. Later, in the Middle East, Europe and finally Latin America in the 1700s, the Coffea plant was still a crop that existed in harmony with its environment [source: NSCC]. Traditional cultivation techniques actually helped sustain biodiversity.

If you look at bags of coffee in the grocery store, especially the "gourmet" ones, you can see evidence of the move away from these harmonious growing methods. With labels like "organic," "Bird Friendly," "Fair Trade," and "shade-grown" appearing on many of the more expensive brands, the obvious conclusion to draw is that the brands without those labels are somehow less "green."

And it turns out to be true. The "shade-grown" distinction is perhaps the most telling of the labels in terms of what it says about coffee-growing as a whole. Shade tends to encompass other designations like sustainability and bird-friendliness, and it speaks to the most basic nature of the way coffee is cultivated.

To some of us, growing in the shade is a somewhat perplexing concept. We're taught from an early age that green things need sunlight to grow. But for some crops, like coffee, shade is a good thing.

In this article, we'll find out why. We'll see what "shade-grown" means in the coffee context, learn why the coffee industry has been shifting to sunlight and look at some of the effects of that move. We'll also see how you can know what you're buying when you purchase your beans.

Judging from the relatively new focus on the "shade-grown" label, it may seem like shade coffee is a new thing. In fact, until the 1970s, pretty much all coffee was shade-grown [source: Daily Green].

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

China Photos/Getty Images

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.

Coffee plants thrive under diverse native shade on the Finca Esperanza Verde coffee farm in Nicaragua.

Photo courtesy of Julie Craves

Growing Coffee in the Shade

Clearing forests to grow acres and acres of coffee bushes has side effects that have only recently gained widespread attention -- resulting in those "shade-grown" coffee brands you see on store shelves. Shade coffee grows in the thick vegetation of forests.

Traditional coffee orchards are home to birds, insects, ants, amphibians, butterflies, reptiles, trees, epiphytes (such as orchids) and mammals. Removing the habitat that supports these species effectively removes those species from the area. Instead of dozens or hundreds of different types of plants and animals, you're left with just a few -- or, in the case of true monoculture farms, just one.

This type of deforestation is a problem in many parts of the world, but it has become increasingly alarming in coffee-growing regions: On the World Wildlife Fund's list of 50 most deforested areas between 1990 and 1995, 37 were top coffee producers [source: Coffee Habitat]. In Central America alone, more than 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared for monoculture coffee farms [source: Coffee Habitat].

Besides deforestation and the accompanying loss of biodiversity, the switch from shade to sun comes with some other nasty effects that have become commonplace in modern agriculture. All of those trees and diverse plants that occupy rustic coffee farms have roles in the growing process. The leaves they drop act as mulch, fortifying the soil and protecting it from weeds. Sun-coffee farms have to use chemical fertilizers and herbicides instead.

The thick vegetation in shade-coffee orchards helps protect coffee bushes from destructive insects. Monoculture growers have to use insecticides. And tree root systems prevent soil erosion. Monoculture farms are left unprotected from the erosive effects of wind and rain.

Clearing all that land of indigenous plant life, along with the addition of chemicals to the growing process, necessitates expensive machinery and additional hands to run it, so the whole operation gets more mechanized and complex, which brings with it environmental and economic costs. The problem gets bigger when the chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides used to replace the natural benefits of rainforest leach into groundwater supplies, potentially harming drinking-water sources.

The Arbor Day Foundation estimates that drinking a single cup of shade coffee instead of sun coffee saves about 2.3 square feet (0.21 square meters) of rainforest [source: Daily Green]. But coffee-growing conditions aren't as simple as "sun" or shade." There are shades of gray in between, so it can sometimes be hard to know exactly what you're drinking.

Leaves from shade trees provide thick, natural mulch for the coffee. They also help limit erosion, contain moisture and provide nutrients.

Photo courtesy of Julie Craves

How Shady is Shade Coffee?

When you buy a bag of "shade-grown" coffee, you may or may not be helping to preserve the rainforest. When it comes to growing coffee, there are different levels of shade, and not all of them are environmentally beneficial.

Coffee cultivation breaks down into several main categories, running from most to least shade:

  • Rustic: Farmers perform little or no alteration to the existing forest. There are at least three layers of vegetation, and coffee grows in 70 percent to 100 percent shade.
  • Traditional polyculture: Some native plants are removed, often replaced with diverse crop species like fruit trees and medicinal plants for harvesting. Coffee grows in 60 percent to 90 percent shade.
  • Commercial polyculture: Much of the original canopy is cleared, leaving only two layers of overlying vegetation. Remaining shade trees are regularly pruned and cleared of epiphytes. Coffee grows in 30 percent to 60 percent shade.
  • Shaded monoculture: A single layer of shade vegetation (typically one or two tree species) provides from 10 percent to 30 percent shade.
  • Monoculture: All vegetation is gone except for coffee bushes and a perhaps a few trees. The coffee grows in full sun.

[source: Coffee Habitat]

Of the five levels of shade, rustic is the most environmentally friendly, with traditional polyculture coming in at a close second. The problem is, some coffee labeled "shade-grown" is actually grown in shaded-monoculture conditions. In Costa Rica, for instance, anything shadier than 100 percent sun is called "shade-grown" [source: Coffee Habitat]. A 10-percent shaded coffee farm may technically be shady, but it wouldn't provide the ecological benefits of traditional growing techniques.

How do you know, then, that what you're buying is really environmentally friendly? As with "organic" labeling, there's a lack of unified "shade-grown" certification criteria in the coffee industry. If you see the certification seal of the Rainforest Alliance or the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center ("Bird Friendly"), you can be sure you're buying truly shade-grown beans. Audubon Shade Grown Coffee, Arbor Day Foundation coffee, Peace coffee, and Birds and Beans coffee, and Starbucks Organic Shade Grown Mexico coffee are also grown traditionally. (For a more extensive list, see The Daily Green.)

For more information on shade coffee and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • How Much Rainforest Fits in a Coffee Cup? Arbor Day Foundation. The Daily Green. July 23, 2009.http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/shade-grown-coffee-47072303?src=rss
  • Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign. About Shade Coffee.http://shadecoffee.org/shadecoffee/Coffee/AboutShadeCoffee.aspx
  • The problems with sun coffee. Coffee Habitat.http://www.coffeehabitat.com/2006/02/the_problems_wi.html
  • What is shade grown coffee? Coffee Habitat.http://www.coffeehabitat.com/2006/02/what_is_shade_g.html
  • What Is Shade-Grown Coffee? Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.http://nationalzoo.si.edu/ConservationAndScience/MigratoryBirds/Coffee/about.cfm