Global Coffee Production Sees A Decline In Shade Grown Varieties
April 17, 2014

Global Coffee Production Sees A Decline In Shade Grown Varieties

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Shade grown coffee is grown under a canopy of trees – a technique hailed as environmentally friendly and sustainable for maintaining plant and animal life around the coffee plantation.

While the land dedicated to shade grown coffee has increased in recent decades, the ratio of shade grown coffee to more intensive and less eco-friendly grown coffee has dropped significantly since 1996, according to a new study published on Wednesday in the journal Bioscience.

"The paradox is that there is greater public interest than ever in environmentally friendly coffee, but where coffee production is expanding across the globe, it tends to be very intensive," said study author Shalene Jha, assistant professor of biology in The University of Texas, in a recent statement.

Shade grown coffee does require the clearing of large trees and some land. However, the agricultural method does supply corridors for migrating birds to maneuver between forested areas, appeal to economically beneficial pollinators like bees and bats, and offer ecosystem benefits – such as filtering water and air, maintaining soil during heavy rains, sequestering carbon and replacing soil nutrients.

Although the overall global generation of shade grown coffee has risen since 1996, the land used for non-shade coffee has risen at a much quicker rate, leading to shade grown coffee falling from 43 percent of overall harvested area to 24 percent – the study found.

"We were surprised that despite two decades of growth in public awareness of where coffee comes from and the different ways to manage it for biodiversity, shade grown coffee only seems to be grown in a few regions," Jha said. "The shifts aren't what we would expect based on what we see on the shelves in the US."

Demand for organic and shade grown coffee has expanded significantly during the past decade in the US. American distributors have reported sales of specialty coffee rising over 75 percent in monetary value from 2000 to 2008. In 2012, specialty coffees included 37 percent of US coffee sales by quantity and almost half by economic value, estimated to be between $30 billion and $32 billion.

During that time coffee cultivation has shrunk in Africa, while expanding in Asia. The problem with Asain expansion is that it is often done using the less sustainable intensive farming style. This style is marked by the clearing of forests and the growing of lower-quality coffee called Robusta. Robusta is often mixed with another lower quality coffee called Arabica to make instant coffee.

The study authors said the switch to the intensive style has been driven by falling coffee prices and the desire of farmers to bring about higher short-term yields. Intensive style coffee growing often results in deforestation, loss of biodiversity and lower soil quality.

"Intensive coffee production is not sustainable," Jha said. "You exhaust the soil and after a couple of decades, it can no longer grow coffee. On the other hand, the oldest coffee farms in the world have thrived for centuries because the forest replenishes the soil for them."

The study authors suggested that government agencies and other stakeholders meet with farmers to create strategies that increase shade grown coffee production.