As much as coffee shapes daily life, it is shaping landscapes. Humans around the world gulp down billions of cups a day, giving little thought to the square inch or so of tropical forest loss embodied in each conventional cup. It all adds up to an annual deforestation rate of over 40,000 hectares, an area four times the size of Paris disappearing every year! Fortunately, there are ways to green coffee habits so that this crop, which originates from natural forests, is grown to its full forest-positive potential. It starts with knowing where and how the coffee is grown, and then taking action to support best practices.
Coffee as a global commodity
From Ethiopia, a centre of wild coffee biodiversity and earliest cultivation, coffee consumption spread by cultural influence and export. By the late 1800s coffee was a global commodity produced mostly on land that was once tropical cloud forest. Today, it’s grown on about 12.5 million farms in over 50 countries falling within a narrow band between the tropics where conditions are just right. Brazil, Vietnam, and Cambodia are the largest export countries in the global trade worth $19 billion and growing. Some estimates suggest coffee production will need to triple to meet consumer demand in 2050.
Coffee’s forest footprint
Practices of coffee cultivation and their impact on forests are region specific but, in general, coffee is grown at elevation where moss-laden cloud forests once stood. The forests are cleared so that coffee may be grown in the full sun, a practice that was encouraged to maximize yields but is proving unsustainable. In addition to problems of soil erosion and chemical pollution, sun-grown coffee is ill-adapted to climate change. Without the natural protections of the forest, the plants are vulnerable to extreme heat and irregular rain.
The forest-positive opportunity
Wild coffee’s growing characteristics provide a model for sustainable coffee farming. These perennial shrubs can live 100 years and thrive in the understories of moist tropical forests. Shade-grown coffee puts these characteristics to use: coffee is grown in the understory of existing forests, or among trees planted on farmland.
Many communities already grow coffee this way. In India, for example, coffee tends to be shade-grown near sacred forests and is sometimes intercropped with spices like cinnamon and cardamom. Similarly, growers approved by leading certification systems, such as Smithsonian Bird Friendly, follow strict native tree cover requirements. Bird Friendly is backed by extensive research that demonstrates a positive relationship between bird-species biodiversity and the quality of tree canopy.
Under shade, coffee can play a role in conserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Birds keep pests off the coffee plants, reducing need for pesticides, while robust tree canopies shield the ground from both intense heat and erosion. Fertilizer needs are reduced or eliminated. These forest-positive practices have co-benefits for farmer livelihoods. Through agroforestry and crop diversification, risk is spread and investment made in the long-term health and productivity of the land.
A woman from the CECANOR co-op harvests wild coffee beans in Peru. Image by Café Femenino.
This unsustainable production is leading to loss of rural livelihoods. It takes roughly $1.10 to $1.40 to produce a pound of coffee, but smallholder contracts based on fluctuating commodity prices can see farmers paid even less. Poor harvests on overexploited land sometimes leave farmers little choice but to abandon their fields. In other cases, forest communities are forced off land marked for expansion of coffee plantations.
Unless meaningful change occurs, more tropical cloud forests will be lost. That means losing some of the world’s most biodiverse areas that are home to high numbers of species found nowhere else. Biodiversity hotspots, such as the Tropical Andes, the Mata Atlântica and the Cerrado region in Brazil, the Mesoamerican Montane Forests in Central America, and the Eastern Afromontane Forests in Ethiopia have already lost ground. Vietnam and Indonesia are more recent fronts in coffee’s forest takeover.
Not all coffee certifications require forest-positive outcomes.
Shade grown coffee
Business as usual
Shade-grown coffee supports biodiversity and ecological resiliency. Image by Smithsonian National Zoo
While voluntary sustainability standards are helping, much work remains to be done. Over a third of coffee is now voluntarily certified (e.g. Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance). But due to the complexity of supply chains, few standards deliver robust monitoring, collect baseline data, or define meaningful shade requirements. For greatest forest-positive impact, single-origin sourcing of shade-grown coffee is vital, and many communities are ready to provide.
Shade-grown coffee changes perceptions of what a successful coffee farm looks like.
Learn more about coffee
Learn more about coffee and deforestation by reading this article
Find out how Rainforest Alliance certification is not enough to ensure that coffee is shade-grown by reading this article here
Uncover how your cup of coffee is clearing the jungle with this New York Times article
Learn about how much carbon goes into making your cup of coffee by reading this article here
Find out about Bird Friendly coffee by visiting this webpage here.