TED Case Studies: Shade Coffee
1. The Issue
During the 1960s-1970s, changes in growing techniques made the
production of coffee increasingly more devastating to the
environment. Coffee which was traditionally grown under a shade
canopy was now being grown without a canopy, under the sun. The
elimination of the shad canopy also eliminated a vibrant habitat
for wildlife. Also, growing coffee under direct sunlight required
a dramatic increase in the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and
Traditionally, coffee was grown under a shade canopy. Coffee
plantations managed in this traditional manner provided a vibrant
agricultural habitat able to support a variety of species of
migrants and other species that prefer or are restricted to forest
habitats. In some cases, shade plantations have supported more than
150 species of birds; a greater number than is found in other
agricultural habitats, and exceeded only in undisturbed tropical
rain forests. Traditional coffee fields attract wildlife because
they mimic forests. The coffee bush is a shade-loving understory
plant, sometimes growing as tall as 30 feet. The plant's propensity
for blurred forest-floor light sets coffee apart from other
tropical monocultures, like sugar, bananas, or cattle, which
replace forest ecosystems with fields. On the other hand, shade
coffee areas provide a habitat for migratory birds and other
wildlife. In El Salvador, shade coffee plantations have been
classified as forests due to the thriving plant and animal
During the 1960s-1970s, coffee growers with the support of local
governments began to grow coffee without a shade canopy. Coffee
growers took chainsaws and bulldozers to their plantations and
introduced "sun-hedge" coffee fields as a means of increasing
yields. Growers noticed a dramatic increase in yields -- as much as
five times more beans than the shaded plantations (Wille, Chris.
"The Birds and the Beans." Audubon. November-December 1994, p. 59).
However, the increased yields had increased environmental costs.
Bared to the low-altitude sun, the coffee plants and the bare, red
earth washing chemical require the constant use of fertilizers and
pesticides. Furthermore, with no foliage to break the fall of
tropical rainstorms, the rains pound the coffee plants and the
earth, washing chemicals and soil down the slopes. In addition,
wildlife suffers at every level from the destruction of their
While this manner of production increases coffee yields, it must
also be accompanied with the additions of chemical fertilizers, as
well as a range of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. Coffee
plants grown without a shade canopy are also subject to a higher
incidence of premature death in environments possessing a marked
dry season. As a result, the plants need to be replaced much more
frequently the shade varieties. The transition from shade coffee to
sun coffee has resulted in major habitat change for migratory birds
in the past two decades. Overall, the transition from shade coffee
to sun coffee marked a sharp decline in the diversity of migratory
birds. Studies in Mexico have found 94-97% fewer bird species in
sun grown coffee than in shade grown coffee.
While shade coffee cultivation methods offer a favorable habitat
for migrating birds, the question remains whether growers of
higher-yield sun coffee can be induced to switch back to shade
coffee. The problem according to Mary Townsend, a coffee buyer and
vice-president of green coffee for Starbucks, the United States'
largest specialty coffee company, states that the largest producers
of coffee in Latin America primarily grow sun coffee because "Full-
sun coffee does provide a higher yield--there's no getting around
that--and farmers always look at yield first. So growing full-shade
coffee requires a commitment to other priorities, and the value of
shade coffee hasn't been brought to many people's attention."
(Willie, p. 64).
Coffee is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. Coffee is
grown in all of the regions in the world, primarily: the Americas;
Africa; and the Pacific. Coffee is widely consumed in the
industrialized countries, but it is grown with only a few
exceptions in the developing countries. In other words, coffee is
an a commodity that is traded across national borders and
furthermore the pattern of trade is from the lesser developed
countries to the developed countries. Given coffee's popularity,
the best means to convince growers to switch to shade coffee is by
generating a demand for shade coffee. Some specialty roasters have
begun a campaign to educate the consumer about the environmental
benefits of shade and have created a niche in an otherwise
competitive market. Seattle's Best Coffee--or SBC--has recently
launched a whole line of organic shade coffee which resulted in an
almost immediate 10 percent increase in sales. SBC is trying to
encourage growers to switch to shade coffee and is willing to pay
30 to 150 percent more for shade coffee. Stewart also maintains
that in addition to being environment and bird-friendly, shade
coffee tastes better than sun coffee. Shade coffee is similar to
fruit that is dry-farmed, the lower yields lend to an increased
intensity to the coffee bean that is translated to a more flavorful
cup of coffee. Stewart also suggests that local governments can
also take initiatives in supporting growers to switch to shade
coffee through the use of subsidies or protecting shade coffee
plantations as national forests.
3. Related Cases
Key Words (1): Coffee
4. Tom DeLorme (May 1996)
B. Legal Cluster
5. Discourse and Status: Agreement and In progress
6. Forum and Scope: Costa Rica and Unilateral
Shade plantations have in some cases been classified by local
governments as forests and it is possible that the maintenance of
shade coffee plantations, could receive financial assistance from
local governments to ensure their protection. Over the past 40
years, two-thirds of the rainforest in Central America has been
destroyed. By promoting shade plantations, local governments can
assist in recovering lost areas and creating havens for both
resident and migratory wildlife.
It is also possible that efforts to promote shade plantations could
be funded by international organizations or Nongovernmental
Organizations (NGOs). Corporations in the North could also assist
by promoting shade coffee. For example, Starbucks Coffee could
carry a line of shade coffees and market the coffees for their
environmental virtues -- educating the public while creating a
niche in the market.
7. Decision Breadth: 1
Growers want to maximize their profits and the transition to sun
coffee has increased yields and profits in the short-term. At the
same time, increased yields have increased the supply of coffee on
the world market, leading to a decline in coffee prices over the
Governments may not be enthusiastic about promoting shade coffee.
Governments may have to provide cash incentives to promote shade
coffee. Furthermore, governments in the developing countries are
dependent on export revenues generated by coffee and decreased
yields would inevitably lead to decreased revenues.
Finally, consumers would have to pay more for shade coffee. If
consumers were willing to pay more for shade coffee, the potential
decreases in yields would be compensated for by higher prices.
However, if consumers were unwilling to pay higher prices, demand
would deter transitions to growing shade coffee.
8. Legal Standing
Currently, there are no legal agreements or regulations concerning
shade coffee. As the shade coffee debate evolves it is more likely
that non-legal measures will be employed to promote shade coffee.
These measures would likely be supported by NGOS and non-profit
C. Geographic Filters
As previously indicated, coffee is grown throughout most of the
world. However, the vast majority of coffee is grown in the
developing world. This domain is identified by the continental
group: North America, South America, Africa, and the Pacific.
The vast majority of coffee is now sun coffee, a process which
produces higher yields than shade coffee but has negative effects
on the environment. Historically, coffee has long been an important
export crop for developing countries. Coffee plantations were
consolidated during the early part of the last century which
resulted in the concentration of land and wealth. In the case of
Mexico and Central America, coffee is one of the top five export
earners in all of the countries in the region. The primary market
for coffee is in the developed countries.
a. Geographic Species Domain: North America
b. Geographic Conflict Site: Southern North America
c. Geographic Impact: Costa Rica
10. Subnational Factors: NO
11. Type of Habitat: TROPICAL
IV. Trade Filters
The impacts of the coffee trade are diverse as well as numerous.
Coffee has played a central role in the social, political, and
economic development of Mexico and Central America. The development
of coffee as a trade commodity on the international market had
direct consequences on the distribution of land. With the exception
of Costa Rica, coffee plantations lead to a concentration of land.
Then during the 1960s and 1970s coffee plantations switched from
shade coffee farming to sun coffee farming leading to increased
environmental degradation. The elimination of a shade canopy
(trees) also eliminated the habitat that provided birds nesting
The trade of coffee occurs on the international market. Coffee is
an agricultural product that is sold on the world market as a
green, unroasted beans.
12. Type of Measure: SUBSIDY
13. Direct vs. Indirect Impacts: N/A
14. Relation of Measure to Impact: N/A
15. Trade Product Identification: RAW: GREEN UNROASTED COFFEE
16. Economic Data:
17. Degree of Competitive Impact Cost ($): MEDIUM - HIGH
As indicated by Steward of SBC, shade coffee (the unroasted beans)
may be sold on the market for 30 to 150 percent higher than sun
coffee. At a minimum, this cost would be passed on to the consumer.
18. Industry Sector: FOOD
19. Exporter and Importer
As mentioned previously, coffee is primarily grown in the Global
South. It is widely consumed in the Global South as well, but the
majority of the premium coffee is sold in the Global North. Most of
the direct environmental effects are experienced in the Global
South as well.
V. ENVIRONMENT CLUSTERS
20. Environment Problem Type: DEFORestation
21. Species Information
22. Impact and Effect: Medium and Structural
23. Urgency and Lifetime: Low and 100s of years
24. Substitutes: LIKE
A switch to shade coffee would provide a sustainable alternative
that is bird and environment friendly.
25. Culture: YES
Coffee is a cultural beverage that is ritually used throughout the
26. Human Rights: NO
27. Trans-Boundary Issues: YES
28. Relevant Literature
Elson, Diane and Streeton, Paul. Diversification and Development:
The Case of Coffee. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971.
Rosebury, William. Coffee and Capitalism. Austin: University of
Texas Press, 1983.
Rosebury, William. Coffee, Society, and Power in Latin America.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1995.
Wille, Chris. "The Birds and the Beans." Audubon, November-December
CASE NUMBER: 367
CASE MNEMONIC: SHADECOF
CASE NAME: Costa Rica Shade Coffee