Shade coffee VS Sun coffee

If you’ve paid attention to the high street over the past few years, coffee shops have been popping up everywhere, in fact, coffee shops are one of the most profitable sectors in the UK economy. In 2013, 800,000 British adults visit a coffee shop at least four times a week according to Kantar1. That means we are drinking an estimated 1.7 billion cups of coffee per year in coffee shops2.

Your standard espresso apparently takes 42 coffee beans to make3. If you drink as much coffee as me, along with as many loyalty cards you can fit in your wallet, then we are looking at A LOT of coffee beans. So where is all our coffee coming from and how is it produced? Well, no prizes for guessing it is generally produced in the tropical zones such as Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and Columbia. Just like many crops in demand in those areas, vast amounts of tropical forests are ripped up to make plantations.


Recently I found out that coffee doesn’t even naturally grow in direct sunlight, it actually grows within the tree canopy in shaded conditions. Plantations have merely been created to increase yields, but of course, come at a huge environmental cost. Some smaller farmers have actually started, or always have been, growing their coffee in the shade of the forest, utilising selective methods to manage light and reduce competition. Although generating a smaller yield, even using a single shade tree as an addition to farming activities can help reduce farming costs by improving a huge number of environmental factors…

These factors include:

  • increased local biodiversity
  • protection from harmful solar rays by the tree canopy
  • improved soil nutrition and root stabilisation
  • a diverse plant life provides food and shelter for invertebrates
  • these species then attract predators which act as natural pesticides, significantly reducing any need for chemicals
  • additional commodities are available to the farmer, such as timber and fruits

This method of farming is now becoming known by many conservation-minded consumers, particularly in the US, who have even given a “Shade-Coffee Certification”. In the UK we have Fairtrade, which values the farmer (in its broadest sense), and the Rainforest Alliance that values the environment. Those qualifying for the certification ’embark on a programme of re-forestation, developing both shade-grown coffee and foresting non-productive areas of their farms4,5‘.

I am not sure all of the brands that are sourcing from Rainforest Alliance certified coffee farms but I do know that Costa and Kenco have both chosen their allegiances with the environment. Which, as an ecologist, happens to be the same allegiance as mine. So if you are rooting for your next caffeine-fix, ask your barista if their beans are Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance.

Which coffee will you choose?

Not a coffee lover? They also have Rainforest Alliance Certified Tea! Not to mention, palm oil, cocoa, cut flowers, cattle and bananas…



References and useful links:






6. Burchett S, and Burchett S (2011) Introduction to Wildlife Conservation Farming, Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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