Green It: Eco-friendly Coffee

Your cup of coffee might be more potent than you think.

banana shade

Coffee plants growing under a biodiverse shade canopy in Costa Rica.

Photo courtesy of Jim’s Organic Coffee

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If you’re like most Americans, you start each day with a hot cup of coffee—or rather, it takes a hot cup of coffee to get your day started. Make that 3.2 cups every day, which is what the average coffee drinker consumes, according to the National Coffee Association and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Coffee is so customary in the United States, it has become the third most common import. What is no longer customary, however, is the basic black brew the majority of us consumed as little as a decade ago.

Nowadays myriad types of coffee create multiple choices—not simply the type of bean or blend, or how the coffee was roasted or brewed, but also the way it was grown. And the type of coffee you choose can influence more than just your taste buds—it also can have big effects on the environment and your health. One coffee that is becoming increasingly favorable to both coffee drinkers and the rain forest ecosystem is shade-grown coffee, which is coffee that is grown beneath a canopy of sun-filtering shade trees.

How Coffee is Grown  

Up until about 30 years ago, coffee primarily had been grown under the canopy of shade trees, providing rich habitats for birds and other forest-adapted organisms. This practice started to change in the 1970s when agribusiness overshadowed traditional methods. In the past two decades alone, more than four out of 10 coffee-growing lands in Central and South America have been stripped of their native canopy of shade trees to make way for higher yielding, yet shorter lived, hybridized coffee plants. These sun-grown varieties are aided by an onslaught of chemicals and require year-round labor, placing financial demands on growers and exposing workers to serious health risks. Sun-grown coffee destroys bird habitat and leads to greater soil erosion and higher amounts of toxic runoff, endangering wildlife and the environment. This coffee grown on scalded earth results in a loss of trees that provide “insurance” crops to growers, such as timber, citrus and other fruit trees.

Shade-Grown Benefits: Great Taste and Beyond  

The new niche market for shade-grown coffee has many coffee drinkers raising their cups to a better-tasting, more environmentally friendly brew. Shaded coffee helps preserve biodiversity and drastically reduces the need for chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Shade coffee plants might not be as productive as hybridized plants grown in full-sun operations, but the plants can produce crops for up to 50 years. Shorter-lived sun coffee plants remain productive for only 10 to 15 years—sustained by the intensive management of chemicals.

Coffee cultivated beneath a shade canopy provides a safe haven for hummingbirds, swallows, tanagers and other native and migratory birds. In fact, shade-grown coffee areas not only shelter up to 97 percent more bird species than sun-grown coffee plantations, they also provide habitats for a surprisingly rich diversity of insects and wildlife species. In turn, the birds, beneficial insects and other predators aid in natural pest control. Fallen leaf litter blankets the ground with an organic mulch that conserves soil moisture, naturally suppresses weeds, adds organic matter and eventually increases the fertility of the soil—all while fostering the growth of coffee plants.

Beyond the benefits that shade-grown coffee provides to wildlife and the environment, taste is one of shade-grown coffee’s greatest perks. The canopy of trees protects the soil from erosion and leaching of nutrients, while fallen leaves and other forest debris enrich the soil with flavor-inducing trace minerals. And because plants grow more slowly in shade as opposed to the sun, the beans develop more sugars and chemicals responsible for perceived taste. As a result, the flavor of coffee is enhanced.

Look for Certified Coffee  

The interest in reviving coffee’s shade-grown roots is percolating. In 1996, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center led the way in bringing producers back to growing coffee the traditional way. Since then, small specialty retailers and major players like Starbucks have joined the renaissance by offering eco-friendly, 100 percent shade-grown coffee. However, not all coffee labeled as “shade-grown” is created equal or produces the same conservation benefits.

Unlike sun-grown or monoculture coffee, the multistoried tree canopy that shelters shade coffee includes a diverse mix of nitrogen-fixing trees, native hardwoods and other important species. These modified forest habitats can feature up to 40 tree species in one traditionally managed coffee plantation. For many small coffee farms, however, “shade” resembles more of an agro-industrial setting common in Costa Rica. Here, rain forests have been replaced with a thin, sporadic canopy of a single tree species, such as the cacao tree (the beans are used to make cocoa and chocolate), or a few other economically valuable trees.

With varying degrees of shade, it would be nearly impossible for consumers to know if their cup of java was grown under the shaded tree canopy of a single species or planted beneath a diversity of multistoried trees. Fortunately, certification programs now exist to validate shade coffee grown on farms that protect biodiversity. Not all shade certification programs share the same conservation standards. Two that produce the highest level of conservation benefits are Bird-friendly Coffee, certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and Eco-OK’s sustainable coffee from the Rainforest Alliance.

Whether your interests lie in reducing the use of chemicals, conserving the environment, preserving bird habitat or protecting wildlife in general, buying coffee certified as shade-grown is a step in the right direction. Better for you, better for the environment. And better-tasting beans ensure a quality cup of coffee. What a great way to start your day.

Coffee’s Health Benefits  

In recent decades, some 19,000 studies have been conducted examining coffee’s effects on health—and the news is good. In fact, moderate coffee consumption of two to four cups per day has been connected with a host of health benefits. Evidence suggests that regular coffee drinkers have a reduced risk of diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, gout, colon cancer, gallstones and cirrhosis of the liver. Coffee also can help stop a headache, boost your mood and has been linked to fewer asthma attacks.

Degrees of Shade

Not all coffees labeled as “shade-grown” provide the same benefits to wildlife and the environment. To ensure the coffee you’re buying is more sustainably grown, look for coffee that has been certified as shade-grown.

Rustic systems contain a higher diversity of bird and butterfly species than shade coffee grown beneath less intense canopies. Coffee plants typically are grown as an understory in a natural forest with few changes to native plants, meeting the criteria of certification programs like the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly program.

Traditional polyculture integrates other beneficial plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts and medicinal plants) within the coffee farm while still maintaining the conditions of shade-grown coffee.

Commercial polyculture is midway between shade-grown and sun-grown, with fewer shade trees and more pesticides for higher production.

Reduced or specialized shade is coffee grown under a single tree canopy, typically Theobroma (cacao), Inga, Gliricidia or Grevillea.

Some of coffee’s health perks are due to its high caffeine content—about 120 milligrams per 12-ounce cup. But brewed coffee also contains a potent mix of antioxidants, important compounds that protect your body from diseases caused by oxidative damage. Naturally, fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants imperative to health. But according to a recent study from the University of Scranton, coffee is the No. 1 source of antioxidants in the average American diet. Scientists at the School of Food Biosciences in the United Kingdom found that a medium roast provided the maximum antioxidant benefits.

Kris Wetherbee is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Herbs for Health. She lives in the hills of western Oregon with her photographer husband, Rick Wetherbee. Visit her website at

Shade-grown Coffee Sources

Audubon Premium:; (800) 829-1300. Audubon Premium shade-grown coffee is certified by the Rainforest Alliance and certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association.

Birds and Beans Inc.:; (866) 332-4737. Shade-grown coffees certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are Mexico “Hacienda Miravalles,” Bolivia “Colonial Caranavi” and Peru “Penachi.”

Cafe Canopy:; (888) 716-4966. Shade-grown organic coffees are certified by an independent third party using shade criteria developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Caffe Ibis:; (888) 740-4777. Mountain-grown, shade-grown and certified organic coffees—some bearing the Smithsonian “Bird-Friendly” certification.

Grounds for Change:; (800) 796-6820. Certified organic coffee roaster specializing in fair-trade coffee grown in shaded conditions.

Higher Ground Roasters:; (800) 794-8575. Shade-grown coffees that are 100 percent certified fair-trade and organic.

Jim’s Organic Coffee:; (800) 999-9218. Certified organic, shade-grown, fairly traded coffee packaged in environmentally friendly bags.

Montana Coffee Traders:; (800) 345-5282. Their “Good Migrations” line is certified organic, shade-grown, co-op produced and fair traded.

Mother Earth News Conscientious Coffee and Tea:; (800) 234-3368. Mother Earth News (one of Herbs for Health’s sister publications) is one of the earliest purveyors of triple-certified shade-grown organic and fair-trade coffee.

Thanksgiving Coffee Company:; (800) 648-6491. Six shade-grown coffees under the Song Bird brand and certified by the Rainforest Alliance certification program.