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Envisioning the Future of Shade Grown Coffee

It’s Arbor Day, but let’s not beat around the bush, so to speak: Most of the coffee industry is caught up within two polarizing viewpoints on the realities of shade grown coffee.

On one hand, shade grown coffee has gained a reputation in coffee arenas as being detrimental to the health of coffee plants and restricting yield potential, while perhaps contributing to the spread of coffee rust — although some research may suggest otherwise — and reducing the amount of sunlight for healthy leaf and fruit development.

On the other side of the spectrum, consumers often envision shade grown coffee to be of higher quality, explaining that shade provides slower fruit maturation allowing for more complex sugar development, while also maintaining a synergic and healthy relationship to the ecosystem, enticing consumers with stories of coffees being harvested among a thickly covered jungle-like canopy where monkeys and jaguars run free.

Both of these polarized viewpoints definitely have some merit, but the key moving forward will be to strike a balance between the camps of profitability and environmental sustainability, which may best be described through further understanding coffee agroforestry systems (a less-than-romantic-sounding version of shade grown, indeed).

As we consider the future of coffee, we should consider shade grown coffee in terms of viability and sustainability. Coffee should be grown within a landscape incorporating shade trees when, and where, it is viable, both environmentally and economically — including considerations such as elevation, temperature, and slope, etc. — while also conserving forested areas, protecting watersheds and highly erodible hillside areas, and practicing selective and regulated harvesting of trees for fiber, fuel, and lumber for the surrounding communities.

Daily Coffee News photo

The division between these ideological camps are as wide as the variation of the landscapes in which coffee is being produced. Thus, every field in which coffee is grown should have a unique tailored agricultural management plan in order to sustain the production of coffee and the ecosystem that supports its growth (soil, sun, air, water).

Such concentration on a tailored approach is a defining characteristic of the “third wave” agricultural revolution known as precision agriculture. This movement involves crop science investments in genetic research, environmental protection actions that help limit the leaching of nitrogen and use of pesticides, and the strengthening economic efficiencies to drive the future of agricultural production.

Yet, the inclusion of the natural ecosystem and the role nature will play in our future landscapes often goes unnoticed or undervalued when considering the future of agricultural production. For example, how much coffee research is being done in genetics compared to how these newly formed varieties will be able to sustain themselves in a thinning ecological complexity? Are researchers designing varieties to exist without tree coverage? Do coffee varieties depend on shade for survival, and if so, are we planning to develop and maintain these necessary forests? If new hybrids are being designed for full sun production, will this incentivize the further clear-cutting of forests?

The conversation about trees within coffee production must be reevaluated and more deeply understood. We must look closely at the realities of our global situation and ask if optimizing yield potential is really going to solve our global issues, or will we need to go deeper than optimal yield potential to truly strengthen and maintain our economies?

Trees are vital to maintaining a healthy human environment. Celebrate this Arbor Day and support coffee producers who see the long-term benefits and roles trees provide for their soil, their family’s health, and for future generations to come.

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