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.