For years, headlines have warned caffeine lovers about the negative environmental impacts of coffee, from K-cups to leftover coffee in water streams. But now, as Karen Weintraub reports for The New York Times, there’s evidence that coffee growing could have positive impacts on biodiversity.
The study, published last week in the in the journal Scientific Reports, says nothing of the environmental waste of K-cups. But the results do suggest that no matter the bean you choose, coffee growing is good for biodiversity—as long as it's grown in the shade.
To assess the impacts of growing coffee on wildlife, researchers examined the abundance of 204 species of birds, including at-risk species like the Nilgiri wood-pigeon, from 2013 to 2015 on coffee plantations in India. They focused on the mountainous Western Ghats region, where the two most popular varieties of coffee (arabica and robusta) beans grow as bushes under large trees.
Researchers found that the variety of coffee didn't seem to matter—both had positive effects on species richness. Because more farmers in the area have been shifting to robusta in recent years due to price and ease of growing, Weintraub writes, this is an important finding. As an added benefit, farmers tend to use less pesticides when growing the resistant robusta.
The researchers discovered that what's most important in supporting biodiversity are the trees around the shade-grown coffee plants. The foliage makes for a great habitat for not only birds but also butterflies and amphibians, adding to the evidence that shade-grown coffee is better for the environment.
According to the International Coffee Organization, India is the seven-largest producer of coffee in the world. And much of the coffee grown in the mountainous regions form only short bushes that flourish in the shade of taller trees. But that isn't the case everywhere. In South America, for example, coffee plants often grow as large as trees in full sun, explains Krithi Karanth, associate conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and one of the study's lead authors, reports the Times.
Nearly 50 years ago, almost all coffee was grown in the shade, most of it in rainforests, according to a 2010 NPR story. Then farmers discovered they could boost production by cutting down the trees and grow the coffee in direct sunlight.
The rise of this sun-grown coffee, however, has made coffee farming more harmful to the environment than ever before, according to a 2014 study. By contrast, they found that shade-grown trees provide a habitat for native wildlife, including corridors for migrating birds to make their way through the dwindling forests.
“In study after study, habitat on shade-grown coffee farms outshone sun-grown coffee farms with increased numbers and species of birds as well as and improved bird habitat, soil protection/erosion control, carbon sequestration, natural pest control and improved pollination,” according to a 2010 review from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The organization analyzed more than 50 studies spanning 15 years and various continents.
Jai Ranganathan, a conservation biologist not involved in the research, tells the Times' Weintraub that the latest study is evidence that farming is not incompatible with wildlife protection, and that humans and nature can thrive together. The study could also have implications for other parts of the world where shade-grown coffee is cultivated, Karanth tells the Times. "As long as people keep trees on their land, birds will be fine," she says.
As an added bonus drinking shade-grown coffee, some say it tastes better, too.