Become a fan of h2g2
Shade-grown coffee is grown in the shade of a rainforest. This means that the land used to grow the coffee is not clear-cut, so as a consequence fewer coffee plants can grow on the same size piece of land. Of course, shade-grown coffee therefore costs more to produce, but it only costs the end customer a little bit more per pound to buy. Growing coffee in the shade is also helpful to the farmers themselves, because they can also grow other plants on the same land that they use to farm their coffee, whereas it's only possible to grow coffee plants on a cleared coffee plantation.
In general, about 150 species of bird species are able to live on shade grown coffee plantations in the rainforest, whereas only about 20 are able to live on sun-grown land. Consequently, shade growing helps many species avoid extinction, and helps the farmers too because the birds eat many of the insects that blight the crops, almost eliminating the need for pesticides. In addition to birds, many more mammals, beetles, ants, amphibians and epiphytes1 can live on shade-grown land than on sun grown plantations.
The Dilemma for Farmers
Currently there are many small-scale, local coffee farmers living in the middle of the world's rainforests. They get paid approximately 50 US cents2 per pound of 'gourmet' coffee, while the companies that then sell the coffee on to consumers charge on average $11.103 for the same pound of coffee. Many people often work for these farmers, but they usually only get paid around 12 cents4 per hour because there is so little money coming into the farm. Many farmers also have to buy more land than is really needed in an attempt to be environmentally sound and grow their coffee in the shade. Many coffee farmers find themselves in such a challenging financial situation that they are unable to maintain their environmentally friendly farming methods - consequently they find themselves having to give up growing shade-grown coffee in order to make a bigger profit so as to stay in business.
However, rather than resort to financial ruin or damaging the environment, coffee farmers can consider a third option.
Fair Trade Coffee
There is a product called fair trade coffee, where the farmers get at least $1.265 per pound. Most fair trade coffee is also shade-grown, so the extra money that the farmers get is almost always put to good use. Since more money must be paid to farmers, fair trade coffee is usually more expensive than regular coffee, but being fair to farmers is definitely worth a bit more money.
Many people agree that it is very important to buy fair trade coffee; in fact some care enough to volunteer in stores that sell it, so that they don't take any of the profit away from the original farmer. Fair trade coffee is also very important because (since it is usually also shade-grown) it shows the local people that they can make a bigger profit by doing something that is both good for both them and the environment.
One problem with fair trade coffee, however, is that many farmers become 'locked' into the Fair Trade Cooperative which does not allow them to then split and become their own farm once they start making higher profits. This actually often causes the farms to lose money that they should be making from their coffee.
Why Choose Shade-grown, Fair Trade Coffee?
The few arguments against shade-grown and/or fair trade coffee are that they are more expensive, and that the plants have a lower yield per acre than on sun-grown plantations. There is not much that anyone can do about the price, although the difference is insignificant enough that most American and European coffee drinkers are still easily be able to afford it. Although there is a lower yield per acre, and farmers can't fit as many plants per as they would be able to if they clear cut the forest, the plants that are shade-grown often live for twice as long as the sun-grown plants. Another benefit of shade-grown coffee is that the land that it is farmed on can, at the same time, be used to grow a wide variety of other crops. Also, more trees result in less soil erosion, acid run-off and irrigation on shade grown coffee farms.
As well as helping the farmers and the environment, shade-grown coffee also benefits the consumer because many coffee drinkers think that it has a richer, less bitter taste. Many drinkers believe it's more aromatic - that's because the beans are not baked in the sun and are given a longer time to ripen. The drinker will also benefit if they are the kind of person that enjoys doing things that benefit other people and the environment.
Right now the demand for shade-grown, fair trade coffee is minuscule, but that can change. If more coffee drinkers started buying shade-grown, fair trade coffee (not even necessarily as a regular habit), bird species, the rainforest and farmers would all benefit rather than suffer from the planet's insatiable appetite for a cup of coffee. It would also help reduce global warming, because the trees that would normally be clear–cut replace some of the carbon in the air with oxygen. So the next time you buy a cup of coffee, just try shade-grown, fair trade and see what it's like to drink something that is morally and aesthetically satisfying.