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Updated 2:00 PM January 19, 2004



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Shade-grown coffee: Conservation friend or foe?

Drinking shade-grown coffee may make you feel virtuous—it's billed as being better for tropical forests and birds—but does growing coffee in shade instead of sun really preserve biological diversity? Some environmentalists argue it actually accelerates the destruction of tropical forests.

In the most extreme cases, forests have been cleared and sun-tolerant varieties of coffee now are grown on virtually treeless slopes.

In short, does shade coffee help or hinder conservation? It helps, Stacy Philpott, a doctoral student, and Thomas Dietsch of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center wrote in the December issue of Conservation Biology. Rigorous certification programs and financial incentives are necessary, however, to make sure that shade-grown translates into conservation-friendly coffee farming, say Philpott and Dietsch, who is a School of Natural Resources and Environment graduate.

In traditional coffee farming, coffee bushes are grown under a canopy of native forest and fruit trees. But in recent years, many traditional plantations have been altered to produce higher yields. In the most extreme cases, forests have been cleared and sun-tolerant varieties of coffee now are grown on virtually treeless slopes. Other growers plant economically valuable trees, such as cacao, to shade coffee plants.

Philpott and Dietsch wrote their paper in response to an article published in Conservation Biology last February in which the authors argued that campaigning to convince coffee drinkers to buy shade-grown coffee may do more harm than good. The article said that's because the higher demand for shade coffee may encourage growers to clear native forest and replace it with lower-diversity, multi-crop shade coffee farms.

But properly promoting shade coffee could prevent such problems, Philpott and Dietsch counter. Certification programs should be modeled after the most rigorous ones, which require coffee farms to have diverse canopies. Because adhering to such strict standards can be prohibitively expensive for small farmers, Philpott and Dietsch suggest linking shade certification with fair-trade programs, which offer price premiums, and advance payment and loans to farmers, ensuring that they can make a living. Unifying certification programs also would clear up consumers' confusion about what kind of coffee they should buy.

To prevent farmers from converting more forest to multi-crop shade coffee farms, Philpott and Dietsch recommend certifying only farms that are at least 10 years old. Most important, they say, certification should include financial incentives for coffee producers to maintain shaded farms.

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