Sip shade-grown coffee and enjoy a morning jolt of caffeine that may offer several environmental and ethical advantages. For example, shade-grown coffee typically promotes greater biodiversity and supports native plants and animals, according to the AgriCultures Network.
It is also often sold as part of an organic or fair trade program, promising environmental and social responsibility. But nothing's perfect, and consumers should be aware of some of the disadvantages of shade-grown coffee.
Improper Growing Environment
Shade-grown coffee is often marketed as helping native farmers, but varying climates and sunshine levels means shade isn't always conducive to growing coffee, according to Stephen Hurst, an agronomist for Mercanta Coffee Hunters. For example, Brazilian farmers who opt for a shade-based growing system may actually see their crop yields drop.
Though shade-grown coffee typically promotes biodiversity in plants and fauna, this generalization isn't always true. In some commercial shade-based coffee farms, the singular use of a specific type of shade tree doesn't support biodiversity, according to the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry. Thus, consumers should use a coffee's shade-grown status as just one criteria of evaluation and not take it as a blanket assumption of the product's support for local wildlife.
Shade-grown coffee can be afflicted by fungal infections, according to the American Phytopathological Society. The APS says this may be because sun-grown coffee plants dry out faster, reducing the excess moisture that fungus need to thrive. Not only do fungal infections ruin a coffee grower's crop, but it may also provoke the use of toxic fungicides.
It is difficult to create a certification or set definition of what constitutes shade-grown coffee because growing conditions and shade needs vary so widely by region, according to the Mercanta Coffee Hunters. Without certification, it is impossible to compare growing practices or issue any verifiable proof authenticating a coffee product as shade-grown.
Shade-grown coffee presents several economic challenges for the coffee grower. First, coffee grown in the shade takes longer to bear fruit, according to Pacific Island Agroforestry. Second, shade-based coffee farms produce up to 50 percent less per acre than farms that don't focus on shade-grown coffee, according to the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry.