Living the WELL Life

Coffee: Choose Organic, Shade-grown and Fair Trade

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Opportunities to save rainforests are at our fingertips every day—and sometimes they are as simple as a cup of coffee. 

Modern farming techniques designed to maximize coffee yields have taken a toll on tropical rainforests over the past forty years. As coffee consumers, we can help reverse this trend by supporting the types of coffee cultivation that make a minimal impact on tropical ecosystems and provide a good income for workers. Each person’s coffee choice matters. In the U.S. alone, we drink approximately 400 million cups of coffee per day, or the equivalent to 146 billion cups of coffee per year. Think of the collective impact we could make if we all chose for the rainforest! We make a difference when we choose organic, shade-grown and fair trade brands of coffees.

Prior to 1972, coffee had been cultivated for hundreds of years in a sustainable manner in the shade of the rainforest. When coffee is shade-grown, there is no need to clear forest, as it provides the ideal habitat for coffee to grow. Coffee plants naturally thrive in the understory of the tropical forest, providing habitat for hundreds of species of birds, a myriad of insects, orchids, reptiles, amphibians and other animals. Protected by the tree canopy, this type of coffee cultivation results in far less soil erosion, weeds and need for pesticides. Thus the farmers’ costs and their families’ exposure to toxic chemicals are both lowered. Farmers also harvest an assortment of fruits, firewood, lumber and medicines from the shade trees. These products make families less vulnerable to coffee price fluctuations on the world market.

However, starting in the early 1970s, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other groups gave $80 million to coffee plantations in Central America for advancements to go along with the general shift to technologized agriculture. These plantations replaced their shade-grown techniques with sun-cultivation techniques to increase yields, which in turn destroyed vast forests and biodiversity. More than 2.5 million acres of forests in Central America were destroyed to make way for monocultures of sun-grown coffee. In this region, less than 20 percent of the country’s forests still remain.

Sun-grown coffee’s higher yield comes at a hefty price to the environment. Massive removal of tropical hardwoods with the accompanying loss of rainforest canopy is a result of sun-grown coffee plantations. In addition, massive chemical inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are required for farmers to produce coffee under the technologized high-yield, full-sun growing conditions. The increased production of coffee puts a greater nutrient demand on the plant and the soil, which is often answered by the farmer with a corresponding increase in agrochemical applications. This in turn leads to water pollution, soil degradation, worker health risks and a dependence of the farmer on chemical supplies with associated costs.

The other aspect of this technologized “sun coffee” is the loss of biodiversity. The traditional shade plantations not only grew great coffee but were ideal habitat for birds and other critters. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s research has determined that shade coffee plantations can harbor up to 150 different species of birds, whereas a typical sun plantation may support around five species.

You can make a difference by purchasing organic, shade-grown or sustainably harvested coffee at home and at your favorite coffeehouse.  

There are different types of certifications that will immediately tell you whether or not a particular coffee comes from a shade-grown sustainable resource. You just need to look for the certification seal on the package.

Rainforest Alliance, a well-respected U.S.-based nonprofit that focuses exclusively on tropical forest conservation, certifies coffee. The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal guarantees the coffee you are purchasing is grown on a farm where forests are protected, the environment is conserved—waterways, soil and wildlife—and workers are paid fair wages and given access to medical care and education. These types of farms serve as a migratory stopover for birds, especially in areas of heavy deforestation. You can find Rainforest Alliance Certified coffees at Whole Foods and many other supermarkets. Look for the seal. 


Look for the birds! The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center certifies coffee as shade-grown and bird-friendly. Manufacturers will display the “Bird-Friendly” certification on the package.  

Also, look for coffees that state on their packaging or on their website, that they produce shade-grown coffee and/or organic coffee. Many smaller, independent, shade-grown coffee farmers are not able to afford certification. Shade-grown coffee cultivation tends to require fewer pesticides and is often organic. The country of origin can be taken into consideration too. As a general rule, coffee produced from southern Mexico, El Salvador, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala are primarily shade-grown. African coffees from Sumatra, Timor, New Guinea and Ethiopia are mostly shade-grown. Use caution when choosing coffees from Colombia, Brazil and Costa Rica, as they are more likely to be sun-grown. However, there are some quality shade-grown coffees from these regions too.

To be absolutely sure you are purchasing from a sustainable source, look for triple certification—that is, certified as organic, shade-grown and fair trade. Triple-certified coffee is grown without chemicals under a diverse canopy for which the farmer receives a fair price. Good for the planet, great for the consumer.

Here are a few recommendations that will make it easier for you to switch to shade-grown, organic, fair trade coffee:

To specifically help the Amazon rainforest, try Golden Valley Farms Amazon Forest coffee ( The family-owned company offers Amazon Forest coffee that is as about as good as it can get when it comes to supporting sustainable agriculture in the rainforest. The coffee is 100 percent Peruvian grown, 100 percent organic and 100 percent shade grown. The Smithsonian Institute has also certified it as migratory bird friendly. Best of all, a portion of sales goes to furthering sustainable development in the Amazon. 

I highly recommend triple-certified Caffe Ibis (, which offers excellent choices of coffee that are organic, shade-grown and fair trade. Caffe Ibis has been around for 30 years and was committed to sourcing coffee from sustainable sources long before it became fashionable.

Rainforest Relief ( recommends a few excellent, shade-grown, fairly traded coffees: Equal Exchange (, Thanksgiving Coffee Company ( and Rogers Gourmet Coffee & Tea Market (, formerly called the Organic Coffee Company.

You will find that shade-grown coffee tends to be more expensive than regular coffee—but the quality speaks for itself. And it’s important to look at the environmental price tag that comes with sun-grown coffee. By paying a little more and committing to purchasing only shade-grown, fairly traded coffee, you are supporting new markets, the future of our planet and a viable alternative to destructive ways of exploiting tropical rainforests. With every cup you drink, you will, in short, be helping to save the world’s remaining rainforests.

Now, that’s the way to start your morning!


Golden Valley Farms (
Rainforest Alliance (
Smithsonian (
Caffe Ibis (
Rainforest Relief (
Equal Exchange (
Thanksgiving Coffee Company (
Roger’s Gourmet Coffee & Tea Market (


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