Making Coffee Production Sustainable

First study to quantify economic trade-offs of shifting from conventional to shade-grown coffee production. Model suggests farmers can optimize coffee profits by converting one to two-thirds of their acreage to shade-grown.

Coffee has huge importance to many smallholder farmers around the world.  The success of a year’s coffee crop can mean the difference between having enough cash in-hand for buying food and watching your household go hungry.  For many, it is the crucial component of their food security, despite coffee not being an edible crop.

On this farm near Andes in Antioquia, Colombia, coffee trees grow beneath a layer of canopy trees in a shade-grown coffee plantation. Photograph by Guillermo Santos.

As is true for many agricultural products, the process for growing coffee is complex.  Frequently, this process is presented as having trade-offs. Increased use of fertilizer and pesticides will likely lead to higher crop yields, but at significant cost to wildlife populations and human health. Using fewer agrochemicals is more environmentally-friendly but requires farmers to face increased risks of losing crops to pests and disease.  A recent paper led by researcher Juan Nicolás Hernandez-Aguilera, a postdoctoral scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, suggests this trade-off may not be as straightforward as previously thought, and that farmers could be better off financially if they used shade-growing practices for part of their production.

Usually, coffee is grown in homogenous fields of trees in full sun.  Hernandez-Aguilera and his coauthors, who are from Cornell University, examined the merits of an alternative method of growing coffee in the understory of shade-bearing trees. Shade-grown production systems mimic a forest structure and provide better habitats for birds than do full-sun systems.  Both the birds and the shade trees provide ecosystem services to the coffee plantations, and these services can replace fertilizer and pesticides and save the farmer money. More birds means more predators of insect pests that can jeopardize a farmer’s coffee crop. Estimates suggest that a single bird could help save 23-65 pounds of coffee per hectare every year from pests.  Additionally, shade trees in shade-grown coffee plantations, often the species Inga edulis, fix nitrogen in the soil, providing the coffee trees additional nutrients. Hernandez-Aguilera notes that other services provided by this system include a reduction in temperatures beneath the shade trees, which is a crucial adaptation strategy for climate change.

At the Cooperativa de los Andes in Andes, Antioquia, Colombia, Juan Nicolás Hernandez-Aguilera conducts a training session with local participants. These young people, many of whom come from nearby coffee farms, will go on to survey and interview members of Cooperativa coffee farms for the research. Photograph by Guillermo Santos.

Hernandez-Aguilera points out that shade-grown coffee beans are often considered higher-quality in the market, and can provide a price premium to farmers that offsets the comparatively lower yields of the shade-grown system. “Our estimates can guide the design of market-based mechanisms that aim to promote sustainable practices in coffee,” Hernandez-Aguilera says. “That said, the effective implementation of these instruments heavily relies on a better promotion and knowledge of the interactions between shade-grown coffee, environmental conservation and product quality among coffee consumers.”

A female Summer Tanager perches on a branch in a shade-coffee farm. Photograph by Guillermo Santos.

While this image of shade-grown coffee is a romantic one, especially for those of us actively imagining how sustainable agriculture should look, farmers are not likely to change their systems unless it makes sense financially.  No previous study has quantified the economic trade-offs a smallholder farmer would experience in shifting from conventional coffee-growing to shade-grown. Hernandez-Aguilera and his colleagues developed a model to evaluate the financial costs and benefits for farmers.  They examined a number of factors, including the cost of planting new trees, the price premiums that coffee consumers are willing to pay, and the potential yields farmers could see.  The model suggests that farmers can optimize their coffee profits by converting 36-66% of their acreage to shade-grown production.

Coffee is also an important crop in many of the developing countries in which IRI is currently working. Hernandez-Aguilera’s study paves the way for further research into how to make growing coffee a more secure and financially stable source of income for farmers who often operate on tight margins under highly variable climate conditions.  Through IRI’s work with Adapting Agriculture to Climate Today, for Tomorrow (ACToday), a part of Columbia World Projects, careful consideration is being given to coffee farmers in Vietnam, Guatemala, Colombia, and Ethiopia. 

“This paper is a great example of the kind of work ACToday is already catalyzing in our pilot countries,” says Ángel Muñoz, the country lead for Guatemala and Colombia on the ACToday project. “This kind of work encourages our partners to ask key questions about how they can maximize income and promote sustainable practices in ways that are harmonious for the environment and that foster the conservation of biodiversity.”

For more about this study and the methods used, check out this video below, produced by Living Bird magazine and Cornell Lab of Ornithology: