Shade Coffee: Not Just for the Birds

When it comes to coffee, we not only need to think about who grows the bean, but also how and where it is grown. Shade coffee is worth the investment, says Tim Boucher.

By Tim Boucher, senior conservation geographer

A lot of us drink coffee. Some of us drink a lot of coffee. The daily consumption of 2.25 billion cups makes coffee the second-most traded commodity in the world! Only crude oil is ahead of it. The choices we make when we buy coffee (as private citizens and as an organization) are important.

Coffee buyers have many choices and some affect the price you pay. The first and most basic choice is probably taste. Taste is governed first and foremost by the type of bean – starting with arabica or robusta. Arabica tastes better, grows in the highlands, and is more expensive. Robusta, grown in the lowland, is the stuff you mostly find in that two-pound can at the grocery store.

Traditional vs. shade grown coffee.
Left: A traditional coffee plantation. Photo by Fernando Rebêlo. Right: A shade grown coffee plantation. Photo by J. Blake.

What you can’t taste is the social and environmental aspect of coffee growing methods.

Coffee is very labor intensive from harvesting to cleaning to roasting. It is grown mostly in the developing world, in the tropics. So we not only need to think about who grows the bean, but also how and where it is grown.

Some coffee is grown on enormous farms and some on tiny family fincas. As many as 5 million people are involved. Typically, tropical forest has been cleared, rows upon rows of coffee plants planted and the little red beans harvested, traded through big corporations, and shipped around the world. However, here is one of the choices that you can make – choosing Fair-Trade coffee or even Direct Trade coffee for high-end coffee beans.

This where small-scale farmers are guaranteed a fair value and are linked directly with importers, creating long-term economic sustainability. While it’s not a perfect system (and the subject of much debate), it is helping get the social and economic conditions of coffee in front of consumers.

The next choice is whether to choose organic (or not). Organic, as you might suspect, is coffee grown without using artificial chemical substances – such as many pesticides and herbicides. This is important too. Many of these chemicals kill indifferently (whether the insects are harmful or not), leach into the soil, and foul our rivers.

The coffee is more expensive, but as a conservationist, this is a choice I recommend as well. I think it tastes better too, and it is certainly better for the environment (and probably better for you too).

Lastly, there is shade (often called bird-friendly) coffee.

To conservationists, this is, without doubt, very important. Here the coffee is grown under large trees (hence the shade), which provide habitat for many species, including resident species and neo-tropical migrant birds (Greenberg et al. 1997), and other critters such as bats (Williams-Guillen et al. 2008), improved soil protection in terms of erosion (Ataroff and Monasterio 1997), natural pest control, improved pollination, better water quality and flow regulation (Jose 2009), and lastly is probably better for mitigating the effects of climate change on plantations (Laderach et al. 2009) and sequesters more carbon (Masera et al.  2003)!

Often shade coffee is also organic and fair-trade, and even supports ecotourism. Birders love shade coffee plantations.

The downside? It comes at a price – but it’s a small amount to pay not only for great quality, but also for helping society and the environment. And, if you brew it yourself, it is still way cheaper than that coffee shop on the corner.

If you want to read more, the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center has done extensive research (over 50 studies!) on the ecological importance of shade coffee – and has a very informative website – including certification process, and a list of places you can buy bird-friendly, fair-trade, organic coffee!

Shade coffee – it’s worth the investment, both socially and environmentally.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.


Ataroff, M. and M. Monasterio, 1997. Soil erosion under different management of coffee plantations in the Venezuelan Andes. Soil Technology 11:95-108.

Greenberg, R. , P. Bichier and J. Sterling, 1997. Bird populations in rustic and planted shade coffee plantations of eastern Chiapas, Mexico. Biotropica 29(4):501-514.

Jose, S. (2009). Agroforestry for ecosystem services and environmental benefits: an overview. Agroforestry Systems76(1), 1-10.

Laderach, P., M. Lundy, A. Jarvis, J. Ramirez, E. Perez, K. Schepp, 2009. Predicted impact of climate change on coffee supply chains. Paper prepared at International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) office in Managua, Nicaragua.

Maas, B., Clough, Y., & Tscharntke, T. (2013). Bats and birds increase crop yield in tropical agroforestry landscapes. Ecology letters.

Masera, O.R.; Garza-Caligaris, J.F.; Kanninen, M.; Karjalainen, T.; Liski, J.; Nabuurs, G.J.; Pussinen, A.; de Jong, B.H.J.; Mohren, G.M.J. 2003. Modeling carbon sequestration in afforestation, agroforestry and forest management projects: the CO2FIX V.2 approach. Ecological Modeling 164 (2003) 177–199.

Williams-Guillen, K., I. Perfecto, J. Vandermeer, 2008. Bats limit insects in a neotropical agroforestry system. Science 320:70

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  1. Bob Johns says:

    Best coffee I ever had — Scarlet Tanager. Smithsonian certified from Birds and Beans. Big, bold flavor but amazingly smooth and not bitter at all.

  2. Thanks TNC for giving a voice to this issue—it’s hard to find another daily activity that has such direct ties to ecosystem health in the tropics. At the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where I work, we suggest that coffee drinkers look for the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly certification if they want to be sure they’re supporting farms that offer excellent forest-like habitat for birds. Other “shade grown” labels don’t require any certification, so it’s harder to know what you’re getting.

    The whole coffee labeling process is confusing—and it’s great that there are so many efforts afoot to ensure coffee is fairly traded and sustainable. If anyone is looking for more info, we’ve posted a guide about how the various labels and badges stack up:

  3. Meredith Cornett says:

    This would be a great way for TNC to Walk the Walk!

  4. Laura Erickson says:

    Bird friendly coffee is not just another name for shade-grown coffee. It’s a specific certification by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center that indicates that the coffee is organic, shade-grown, and grown in a habitat that exceeds a certain level of natural biodiversity.

    1. Ellen says:

      The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has indeed trademarked the term “bird friendly” but there is bird friendly (using that term in the descriptive sense) coffee that is not certified by the SMBC. There are many growers who have not been certified for various reasons including cost but whose growing practices are indeed bird friendly (organic and shade-grown). We applaud the SMBC and its efforts, which is why Tim made sure to draw attention to it.

      Certification – for shade, fair trade, whatever – is a complicated situation.

      There are other growers whose coffee is definitely bird friendly but not certified. As Tim mentioned, Good Dog Coffee, which is owned by an ornithologist who devotes considerable personal effort to assuring that the coffee he sells is organic, fair trade, and shade-grown.

  5. TimBoucher says:

    Thanks. I get my shade coffee from Good Dog Coffee (who are based in GA)- Their coffee is excellent.

  6. Peter Ellis says:

    Very nicely summarized Tim!

    I had the privilege of working with shade-grown coffee growers in Chiapas last summer as part of the TNC-led MREDD program ( There was a large-scale open-grown plantation right next-door to the growers we were working with, and the differences are indeed dramatic.

    However, the shade-grown story is complex, as I found that “shade grown” varies quite wildly in terms of % tree cover. At higher elevations, where it’s colder, even small-scale growers are forced to keep % cover around 25% in order to let in enough light to keep the plants warm and prevent fungal infections. This photo ( shows what “shade-grown” fair trade coffee looks like at high elevations, while lower-elevation farmers were able to maintain more forest structure like this (

    That said, in one of the few large Ulmus mexicana trees left at one of the higher-elevation coffee farms (with lower tree cover), we did spot this rare endemic bird (, an apparent new record according to the bird geeks I was with!