Shade Grown Coffee vs. Mono-cropping

Coffee is beloved by billions of people around the world due to its stimulating effects (and possibly pleasant flavor once you become accustomed to it).  I am sure many people reading this blog have either already had their morning cup of coffee or are currently drinking it.  Many people drink their coffee without much thought as to how it is produced because most people are very detached from their food sources.  Production of coffee, like any other agricultural product, comes with many different trade-offs depending on the system.  We read two articles in class this week, Shade Coffee: A Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity by Ivette Perfecto et al. and A global meta-analysis of the biodiversity and ecosystem service benefits of coffee and cacao agroforestry by Matthias De Beenhouwer et al. which introduced the trade-offs between traditional shade grown coffee and intensive mono-cropping sun grown coffee.

Looking solely at economic gains for a farmer, a mono-cropping system of coffee is at first pretty enticing due to its initial higher yields per hectare and per unit labor since it allows the farmer to plant coffee trees at higher densities.  But after closer examination, mono-crops of sun grown coffee might not be as profitable in the long run.  Higher inputs are required for sun-grown systems due to fertilizers, herbicides and a higher rate of crop replacement.  Fertilizers are needed due to the lack of introduced organic matter from leaf litter provided by tree cover in shade grown systems which means that there is higher leaching of nitrates and phosphorous into local watersheds.  Likewise herbicides leach into water ways at a greater rate in sun-grown systems due to the increased amounts of weeds that thrive with the increased availability of sunlight.  Coffee trees mature at a greater rate when in direct sunlight which is initially beneficial for the farmer since it decreases the amount of time between planting and profit but eventually it can become more of a drain of profits due to the fact that they also age faster/stop producing much sooner so need to be replaced at a greater rate than shade-grown trees.  All of these activities require greater inputs in labor, as well, since trees often have to be sprayed with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides multiple times throughout the growing season.  Also looking at today’s market for coffee, shade grown coffee is much preferred by consumers and roasters due to its sustainability aspects and many consumers (if they are informed on production) are usually turned off of agricultural products that are grown with high chemical inputs.

In the Intag valley of Ecuador, a focus on traditional shade grown coffee would be ideal in protecting the great biodiversity of the area.  As explored earlier, Intag is a center of diversity of both flora and fauna due to its status as a montane cloud forest.  It is also an important aspect of the hydrological system both as a cloud forest and since it sits on the headwaters of many of the stream networks that irrigate communities at lower elevations.  A mixed system of shade grown coffee grown in an agroforestry setting (grown under the canopy of other production crops such as fruit trees, nitrogen fixing legumes, and timber trees) combined with rustic plantation (canopy of natural trees endemic to the area) would probably be the best system for Intag because it still allows for high yields in both coffee and non-timber forest products for the farmer but it also mimics the natural forest environment and acts as a refuge for biodiversity which is important since the cloud forests is under severe threat due to deforestation and fragmentation.  This would allow for continued agricultural profit from coffee but also benefits the farmer since it diversifies their crop allowing for a back-up in times of low coffee yields.  Not only does this benefit the biodiversity of the area, it also protects the land from the effects of erosion such as mudslide as often seen in mono-cropping systems, as well as, the soil health by allowing greater inputs of organic matter and reducing nutrient leaching due to run-off since the tree canopy slows down the introduction of water into the system due to precipitation events.  Also the greater protection of biodiversity also contributes to the local economy due to eco-tourism which would be attracted to the healthy cloud forest, so it is a win-win for both the environment and the local economy.

Initial incentive of monetary stipends/compensation from the government/agricultural extension services for farmers moving towards shade grown coffee systems might be necessary in order for the farmer to have the money to invest in seed for the canopy cover.  A monetary stipend might also be necessary so that the farmer can invest in the system but still have enough money to support their family through the period between planting and initial harvest profit which can be several years since coffee trees take a few years to mature and start producing fruit.  Past the initial investment, shade grown coffee systems come with enough local incentives from long term benefits that most farmers would surely be enticed to move to the more sustainable system.  This is especially true for Intag since a lot of people in the region are actually very well informed on local environmental issues.  Long term benefits of shade grown coffee agroforesty systems include a healthy ecosystem, increased biodiversity, decreased inputs of fertilizer/insecticides/ herbicides/fungicides, increased soil health, decreased soil erosion/danger of mudslides, and the economic benefits of growing multiple crops.

1 Thought.

  1. A very complete response…well done. Labor is a complicated issue as shade is often consider more time demanding per lb of coffee. But your point about needing people to add fertilizers and pesticides in sun coffee plantations is well taken.

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