What is Shade-Grown Coffee?

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Shade-grown coffee basics

Shade-grown coffee means that the coffee plants are grown under a canopy of trees, as nature intended them to do. Full-grown coffee bushes are the height of the average adult, and, in a tropical environment, they fit perfectly under large trees.

What we refer to as shade-grown coffee does not come from plants that grow in the wild, they are still cultivated. In an effort to mimic natural conditions, farmers create tree shades to cultivate shade-grown coffee. 

Sun-grown coffee only appeared in the 1970s, as farmers discovered yields are higher, and so are profits.

Is shade-grown coffee better?

Coffee aficionados swear that shade-grown coffee tastes better than sun-grown beans, and there are a few factors that point to this conclusion. 

Coffee-plants in modern plantations sit all day under the scorching sun and they don’t get all the nutrients they need from the soil.

A more important issue is that sun-grown coffee plants are regularly sprayed with fertilizers and herbicides, which means chemicals nobody wants in their brew.

Shade-grown coffee bushes do not need chemical fertilizers as they are naturally fertilized by dead leaves falling from the trees. 

At the same time, plants growing in a bio-diverse habitat don’t require much protection against weeds and pests, as nature generally takes care of the problem. Weeds are kept at bay by the protective carpet of dead leaves, while birds are natural predators for bugs and insects.

Is shade-grown coffee better for the environment?

Shade-grown coffee is, indeed, better for the environment as the way it is cultivated replicates the natural way coffee plants grow in the wild, where they are part of a balanced ecosystem. 

Growing coffee plants among trees mean a greater number of root systems in the ground, which decreases erosion of the soil. At the same time, the roots draw up nutrients from deeper layers of the soil to the surface. 

Shade-grown coffee is generally cultivated on hills and mountain slopes. When rains wash away the top layer rich in nutrients it improves the quality of the soil in all the nearby areas.

Also, some shade-grown coffees have been issued the much-coveted Bird-Friendly certificate. This means that the coffee is grown in an undamaged forest, where many species of birds have their habitat. And it’s not just about birds. The forests created to protect shade-grown coffee are the natural habitat for reptiles, butterflies, bats, and various insect species.

Is sun-grown coffee bad for the environment?

With sun-grown coffee, the natural balance of the ecosystem is disrupted and the plants are in no way beneficial to the soil. 

The greatest problem with sun-grown coffee is that it is a monocrop, and this has a major contribution to soil degradation over vast areas where big plantations are located. The extensive use of fertilizers means that the soil is saturated with dangerous chemicals, which are then washed away by rains, negatively impacting the surrounding ecosystem.

Disadvantages of shade-grown coffee

Critics of the shade-grown method say that, in some farms, growers use just one type of tree to create a protective canopy for the plants, and this does not really support biodiversity.

Another problem is that of fungal infections.

Coffee plants that grow in the sun dry out faster, getting rid of the moisture fungi need to thrive. Shade-grown coffee is more prone to fungal infections which require the use of fungicides.

Overall, shade-grown coffee is better for the environment and has a superior taste as plants cultivated among trees get more nutrients from the soil.

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