The Best Coffee—and Wildlife Habitat—Is Made in the Shade

Shady plantations in Western India have proved to be a good place for wild bats to live—and they aren’t the only animals seeking refuge under coffee’s canopies.

Shade-grown eco-friendly Indian coffee at various stages of ripening. (Photo: EcoFriendly Coffee/Facebook)

Aug 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Birds get all the great PR, from Portlandia sketches to tattoos on the latest Bachelorette. They even have their own bird-habitat-friendly coffee, studied extensively by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. But they’re not the only winged creatures making their home amid the shade of coffee plantations.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Leeds found that bats are flourishing among the coffee farms in India’s Western Ghats, a 1,000-mile ribbon of mountains that runs down the western side of the subcontinent. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and also has the highest human population of Earth’s biodiverse hot spots. Development and agriculture—many of the country’s coffee producers are there—have left only 6 percent of the original habitat in the region. Many species, including more than 5,000 varieties of flowering plants and hundreds of mammals, birds, and amphibians, have had trouble in the transformed landscape. But not bats—and this is perhaps more important than a coffee drinker would initially think. (No species, the researchers noted, preferred the tea plantations.)

“Bats are exceedingly important creatures, both in natural ecosystems and in many agricultural habitats,” said the study’s lead researcher, Claire Wordley. Studies have shown that bats save us big bucks. They are excellent pest hunters and save the U.S. agricultural industry at least $3 billion a year thanks to their insect-eating ways—and possibly as much as $53 billion a year. “Bats are among the most overlooked economically important, non-domesticated animals in North America,” the report found.

In natural ecosystems, bats are excellent bioindicators, explained John Altringham, a biology professor at the University of Leeds, meaning they serve as a kind of metonymic shorthand for an environment’s overall health. “We are able to learn not only what these changes in the environment mean for bats but also for wildlife in general,” he said.

Globally, about 25 percent of the world’s coffee is grown under a full or partial canopy, 35 percent under partial shade, and 40 percent under full sun. In the last half-century, full-sun conditions have increased dramatically as coffee growers have sought higher yields. But only arabica coffee, which accounts for 75 to 80 percent of world production, is shade-grown. Since the 1990s, the value of shade-grown coffee farms for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem service provision has gained widespread attention from the public, scientific communities, and coffee growers.

In Central America, Wordley said, coffee farmers are increasingly returning to planting under shade trees, which could help them adapt to climate change.

“The roots of the trees stabilize the soil, and the trees offer the crop some protection from hurricanes and other extreme weather events. Furthermore, the cool shade protects the coffee from temperature fluctuations, providing a bit of local climate control. So native shade trees could help farmers adapt to climate change,” she said.

Other studies have shown that shade-grown coffee is a good habitat for birds and bats in the Americas, and efforts to protect the forests where jaguars and chimpanzees live have been undertaken by growers in Central America and East Africa. But this is the first major study on bats and coffee in Asia and a good example of how principles of agroforestry, or mixing agriculture and natural habitats, can help preserve wildlife and function as a refuge in a changing landscape.

“We’re pleased that the results are similar in such a different environment,” Wordley said. “Further deforestation would be a serious threat to these species, but the good news is that they are, for the moment, surviving in small forest patches, riverine habitats, and in coffee plantations.”

While shade-grown coffee is better for animals and the environment, the question remains: Does it brew a better cup? The matter of taste is more difficult to parse than the ethics.

“Healthy and quality go hand in hand,” Brazilian coffee farmer Byron Holcomb told Serious Eats last year. “Healthy coffee has a much higher chance of being quality coffee. Coffee, botanically speaking, is an understory shrub. It naturally exists under a taller canopy of trees, aka shade.” (His coffee, interestingly, grows in full sun.) But a scientist told the site the issue of shade and taste was a “tricky and complicated matter” and concluded that he didn’t think the light itself made a difference.

But in the growing specialty coffee market, which comprises 51 percent of the $46 billion retail coffee market, a connection to the story behind the products often drives purchasing.

“High-quality coffee—and I think few would argue with the statement that shade-grown coffee is the best—is a small but growing corner of the market, and there is a premium on good coffee,” biologist Altringham said. “I am certainly happy to pay more for good coffee, especially if I think it is better for the environment.”