Shade-grown coffee is as natural as it comes — the low-to-the-ground plant thrives as part of a healthy ecosystem surrounded by other species of plants and wildlife. Equal Exchange’s mission to work with small farmer cooperatives has led us to work in regions with extensive landscape degradation. The market access we provide to producers in these regions is critical to restoring these landscapes. Because we’ve been working with our co-op partners for so long, we’re able to source outstanding beans. And much of the coffee we buy is shade-grown. The plants that shade the coffee give shelter to birds and insects, sequester carbon and serve as a source of food for local communities. That’s not all. Shade actually helps make for a sweeter cup!
Shade-Grown and the Environment
Coffee is a shade-loving shrub. But in recent decades, people have developed sun-tolerant varieties of the coffee plant. These varieties, grown on plantations in a mono-culture system, do what they’re meant to — produce large yields. People clear forests of native plants to plant these large fields of coffee. And a growing environment without crop variety doesn’t support biodiversity. Over 98% of Equal Exchange coffees by volume are certified organic. (Our few non-organic coffees are clearly labeled.) The overwhelming majority of these organic coffees are shade-grown. Shade trees and various types of crops and plant-life are an important part of the ecosystem for birds and pollinators.
Some of the non shade-grown coffees that Equal Exchange sources are produced in locales where deforestation has occurred. The land in these areas is in transition; it’s still in the process of being restored with agroforestry systems using coffee as the principal crop.
Want to learn more? Watch our documentary about farmer partners who grow coffee in buffer zones around protected biospheres in Peru:
Shade and Sweetness
The coffee beans we roast are the seeds of the plant. They’re found in its small round fruit, its cherries. Some fruits, like bananas, can be picked when green; they’ll continue to ripen after harvest. Coffee is different. It will not ripen any more once the fruit is off the bush. For that reason, skillful growers wait until the cherries are mature, when they’ve developed as much sucrose as possible. The sucrose in the cherry flavors the coffee in the cup — and it depends on factors like altitude and shade cover. Coffee plants needs sunlight to develop, of course. But they thrive when they grow in partially shady conditions. According to the Coffee Quality Institute, shade-grown coffee will have 3% more sugar than coffee that is grown in full sun.
What about Certified Shade-Grown?
While the shade-grown certification system is appropriate for some growers, it comes with costs. We don’t believe it provides sufficient additional benefits for us to ask our producer partners to go through this process on top of the fair trade and organic standards they are already meeting. It’s important to note that both organic and fair trade standards have environmental components that cover much of what shade-grown certification requires. From our perspective, shade certification doesn’t alter in a significant way the practices of farms that are already fair trade and organic certified.