Grown in the tropics worldwide and shipped to markets internationally, coffee is truly a global product. The coffee bush originates in Ethiopia where its leaves, fruits, and seeds were first consumed by African aborigines. Over the centuries, coffee, and the act of drinking it, made its way from Ethiopia to the Middle East and into Europe. As it gained popularity, European countries tried unsuccessfully to cultivate the plant. Those countries with colonies in tropical regions capitalized on the opportunity to produce coffee in those warmer climates beginning in the eighteenth century.
Today, coffee is a staple crop in tropical countries worldwide. It can be grown under a variety of management schemes, ranging from a monoculture in full sun to shading the understory in a diverse system. Although these systems exist along a spectrum, researchers defined five major categories most coffee plantations fall under: unshaded monoculture, shaded monoculture, commercial polyculture, traditional polyculture, and rustic. The unshaded monoculture consists of coffee bushes grown in full sun with no other bush or tree species present, while a shaded monoculture includes one additional species of tree. In a shaded monoculture, the additional tree species is typically nitrogen-fixing (meaning it returns nitrogen to the soil) and has market value. The commercial polyculture and traditional polyculture systems include coffee bushes with a diverse mix of trees in the canopy. The commercial polyculture only uses additional species that hold market value, while the traditional polyculture maintains useful native and non-native species in the understory and a native forest canopy. On the far end of the spectrum, the rustic system completely removes the native understory and replaces it with coffee, while maintaining the native forest canopy.
Research suggests that coffee bushes grown under a shaded canopy can offer higher quality, better tasting, and more coffee beans, but the global demand for coffee prompted growers to shift to the unshaded monoculture system. These farms use special varieties of coffee bushes that are more successful without shade, but they frequently require more inputs, including pesticides. In addition, sun grown coffee offers little to no environmental benefit, as many species of wildlife cannot thrive among a monoculture system and other plants that could provide diversity on the landscape are discouraged in these systems. Research shows that even shaded monoculture plantations do not provide enough structural and species diversity for wildlife to thrive. Despite global recognition that biodiversity in the tropics is worth saving, deforestation as a means to create agricultural land remains the top threat for wildlife in this region of the world.
Luckily, coffee- and nature-loving consumers have options to demand coffee from farms and plantations that actively work to support biodiversity while producing coffee. Programs including the Rainforest Alliance ECO-O.K. Program and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird-Friendly Coffee Initiative offer certification programs for farmers that are implementing eco-friendly practices. The programs seek to provide consumers with information on shade-grown coffee and its environmental benefits, create specific production standards for coffee farms and plantations to encourage environmentally-friendly production practices, and sell coffee from certified farms and plantations at a premium price to environmentally-conscious consumers. Studies have shown that certification standards are successful in identifying farms that truly conserve biodiversity.
There are still major hurdles to shifting certified coffee from a specialty market to the mainstream. Certified farms and plantations enjoy long-term benefits ranging from improved soil health to additional marketable products, but certification costs can make reaching this achievement impossible for poor farmers. Additionally, many conservation-oriented certification programs do not consider social equity issues in certification standards. Finally, consumers are often confused about the meanings behind special certification labels, leading to variable success in markets globally. Partnerships between groups working toward biodiversity conservation in the face of agricultural expansion and social equity in rural agrarian communities could help bridge the gap between these major global concerns.
With an unfailing global demand, producers worldwide, and innumerable groups actively working on biodiversity conservation and social equity in the industry, coffee is well situated to serve as an example of harmony between agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. Have you considered leaving room for conservation in your cup?
This post was developed based on a review paper on coffee, biodiversity, social equity, and eco-friendly certification standards I wrote as a class assignment. Find a list of sources I used here.