What is shade coffee?

Growing Coffee in the Shade

Coffee plants thrive under diverse native shade on the Finca Esperanza Verde coffee farm in Nicaragua.
Coffee plants thrive under diverse native shade on the Finca Esperanza Verde coffee farm in Nicaragua.
Photo courtesy of Julie Craves

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.