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Coffee and sustainability Part II: Have your coffee and drink it too


In the previous post of this series, I pointed out how some current coffee farming practices often lead to clear-cut of rainforests, leaving less habitat for wildlife populations and thus threatening their persistence.

Well, that sounds pretty terrible,” you say, “but I’m not willing to give up the one thing that gets me out of bed every morning.

But what if there is a way to feed your addiction while also easing your guilty conscience?

Go on…

Wildlife-friendly farming

To mediate the negative impact of coffee farming on tropical biodiversity, some wildlife-friendly farming practices propose potential “win-win” solutions where farmers can make a living while wildlife populations could persist.

One such solution is land-sharing farming, where farmers plant a variety of native trees on their farms to provide habitats for wildlife. The coffee grown using this practice is called “shade-grown” coffee. However, these additional trees take up valuable land that could otherwise contribute to coffee production. To account for this loss, farmers often need to convert additional forests to farmland. Furthermore, compared to natural, pristine forests, shade-grown coffee plantations provide habitats of lower quality for wildlife, including birds that depend mostly on forests and thus do not occur at all on shade-coffee farms.

Example of a shade coffee farm with trees planted intermittently among coffee plants in Costa Rica (photo taken by author).

Another sustainable farming practice is the land-sparing farming. This approach allows farmers to divide their land into two parts: one part is converted to farmland, which farmers can cultivate to the extent that maximizes yield; the other part remains a forest patch for wildlife. An example of land-sparing is the “Integrated Open CanopyTM  (IOC) practice, which specifically requires farmers to preserve a patch of forest equivalent to the size of the farmland. The trade-off with not being able to cultivate on all of their property is that farmers often have to farm the non-forest part of their land more intensively to make up for yield.

Example of an Integrated Open Canopy coffee farm abutting a patch of secondary forest in Costa Rica (photo taken by author).

Several studies have shown that both land-sharing and land-sparing practices benefit a variety of animals including birds, mammals, and insects.

“These solutions sound great! But, how do we get farmers to implement these practices?”

Glad you asked…

Coffee certification schemes

Several certification schemes currently exist to incentivize coffee farmers to adopt wildlife-friendly farming practices. These schemes provide guidelines for farmers to cultivate their farms in a sustainable way to receive certification. Farmers who meet the certification criteria get paid more for their coffee and thus are able to make more profit.

The Bird Friendly®️ certification was established by the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute specifically for protection of wildlife populations. Although the label is called “Bird Friendly®️”, the practice benefits more than just birds. Another example is the Rainforest Alliance certification, which applies to not only coffee farms, but also other agricultural products such as bananas, cocoa, and palm oil that are grown under sustainable practices that benefit wildlife.

However, in order to meet the criteria to produce wildlife-friendly coffee, the farmers have to spend more money upfront to convert their farms to shade-grown plantations, which many small-scale farmers cannot afford. Additionally, the term “shade-grown” can be applied to practices from coffee garden to commercial polyculture; while both are “shade coffee,” they represent different levels of habitat quality for wildlife. Despite these issues, wildlife-friendly coffee is a step in the right direction to mediate negative impacts of deforestation resulting from agriculture.  

Depiction of different coffee farming practices. Extracted from Moguel, P., & Toledo, V. (1999). Review: Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems of Mexico. Conservation Biology, 13(1), 11-21. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2641560

“I see! But I still don’t know how I can find these sustainable coffee products…”

Here’s what you can do to help

As consumers, we could purchase coffee with labels indicating it was produced using sustainable farming methods. Café Solar is a brand established by the Mesoamerican Development Institute (MDI) which offers coffee produced using IOC farming practices and processed using renewable energy.

Locally, Athenians can find shade-grown coffee at the 1000 Faces coffee shops. Although its coffee is not officially certified as shade-grown, 1000 Faces purchases coffee from many farmers who produce shade-grown coffee, ranging from rustic farms in Ethiopia to commercial polycultures in Mexico and shaded monoculture in Guatemala (see depictions above). Ben Bowdoin, a coffee buyer for 1000 Faces, stated that “cooler temperatures [resulting from shade] allow for slower coffee cherry maturation, which equates to more nutrients (read: better flavors, more sugars, more acids)… [I]f we’re looking for the best tasting coffee, it will for sure be grown under some amount of shade.”

So there you have it: while it looks like our caffeine addiction is here to stay, there is a glimmer of hope for lessening our impact on the environment while enjoying a delicious cup of pick-me-up.

About the author:

image3 Angela Hsiung is a PhD student in Warnell School of Forestry and Natural resources at UGA. She enjoys studying wildlife and fish ecology and conservation. Aspiring to be a master of none, when Angela is not at school, she can be found lagging behind a group of runners while gasping for breath, mis-identifying a bird, or failing spectacularly at playing “Sweet Home Alabama” on the guitar. You can contact her at solitaire.hsiung@gmail.com. More from Angela Hsiung.

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