Shade-Grown Coffee Put To Test

Forty years ago, almost all coffee was grown under the shade of the rainforest. Now, many coffee farmers have abandoned those techniques for clear-cutting. Host Guy Raz talks to Shalene Jha, a University of California researcher who's studying the environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee. While environmental benefits are great, taste is crucial, so we'll meet up with Nick Cho of Wrecking Ball Coffee for an in-studio taste test.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Forty years ago, most of the coffee we drank in this country was grown in the shade, in rainforests. But then, coffee farmers figured out they could boost production by clear-cutting the trees and letting in the sun. The yields were higher, but it meant millions of acres of rainforest were destroyed.

Shalene Jha is a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley and she studied the effects of coffee growing on rainforests. And on a recent trip to a coffee-growing region in Mexico, she noticed that there were these small pockets of rainforest fragments surrounded by land that had been cleared by farmers. And the birds and bees and bats that live in those fragments are, in a sense, trapped.

Ms. SHALENE JHA (Researcher, University of California, Berkeley): The organisms living in these tropical forests, they require movement to be able to sustain their population. And so if they can't move through the intervening landscape to the next forest fragment, they're in big trouble.

RAZ: But if farmers reverted to growing coffee in the shade, they could solve the problem. Shalene Jha makes that argument in a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But I asked her, what's the advantage for the farmer?

Ms. JHA: These organisms provide services such as pollination. So studies have found that when you have a greater diversity of native bees, you actually have higher (unintelligible) in your coffee bushes. These pollinators also facilitate or they promote the reproduction of native trees. So these habitats are more easily reforested.

And a number of other studies have also found with greater diversity and abundance of birds and bats, you have pest control in your coffee plant leaves.

RAZ: You don't need to use pesticides.

Ms. JHA: You don't need to use pesticides.

RAZ: You mentioned these forest fragments, these sort of like islands, island of forests surrounded by acres of coffee plantations. I mean, how are they affected by the coffee plantations around them, and can they survive ultimately?

Ms. JHA: Currently, tropical forest fragments are in the sea of pasture or some coffee habitat, are completely isolated. And so if there's any sort of epidemic or there's some sort of damage being done to that particular population in the forest fragment, that's it. There's no hope for them. And with shade coffee farms as the matrix or as that intervening habitat, these organisms can actually move between forest fragments and re-colonize areas that might have been lost before.

RAZ: What would happen? What would the impact on the environment be if consumers started to pay attention to this - Because, obviously, there isn't much evidence to suggest that they are - and started to buy coffee that was labeled shade-grown coffee?

Ms. JHA: So, if more of sun coffee farms were converted back to shade coffee farms, we not only would have better pest control and pollination services and less erosion and just safer, cleaner water waste, but we'd also be providing this fabulous habitat for organisms like birds and bats and bees and a safer place for farmers and the people involved in bringing us the food that we enjoy.

RAZ: That's Shalene Jha. She's a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. Her study on shade-grown coffee farms and biodiversity can be found in the new issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shalene Jha, thank you so much.

Ms. JHA: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: So to recap, shade-grown coffee is good for birds and bees, bats, farmers and the environment. But there's one crucial question we haven't answered yet. How does it taste?

(Soundbite of coffee grinder)

RAZ: That's the sound of Nicholas Cho hard at work. He runs Wrecking Ball Coffee here in Washington, D.C. And he's brought us portable coffee brewing kit to our studios to help us compare what shade-grown coffee tastes like versus regular coffee, the kind you can buy in the supermarket. First, to a coffee from Guatemala that was grown in the shade.

Mr. NICHOLAS CHO (Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters): What are you tasting?

RAZ: That's great. It's very delicate.

Mr. CHO: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And it's very shady. You know, I could (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: I mean, it's great. I enjoy it. But would there be anything in here that would say this is grown in the shade?

Mr. CHO: Well, I would say that the things that relate to it having been grown in the shade are the slight, delicate sweetness that you might taste there, that's sugar development is very much related to...

RAZ: Yeah, it tastes kind of like caramelized flavor in there.

Mr. CHO: Absolutely.

RAZ: Like around the edge.

Mr. CHO: A lot of that's the roasting, sort of craft of roasting. But the sugar has to be there to caramelize. And that development is very much related to the growing conditions, which relates to the shade. Should we try the Colombia?

RAZ: Absolutely.

Mr. CHO: I picked this up this morning at the local Safeway. It was just - I asked the people who worked there what was the most popular coffee and they pointed me to this one. Different?

RAZ: Yeah, very different. Obviously, this is - just kind of the standard coffee.

Mr. CHO: Yeah.

RAZ: I mean, it doesn't - there's nothing particularly distinctive about it.

Mr. CHO: Right. Very coffee-flavored coffee.

RAZ: Coffee flavored coffee, yeah.

Mr. CHO: Yeah. The Guatemalan and the higher quality coffee you'll find, you can pick out different flavors. Like you said, caramelly(ph) sort of thing. Whereas the Colombia, it's just very sort of a generic coffee flavor

RAZ: That's Nicholas Cho of Wrecking Ball Coffee.

Nicholas, thank you so much. I really appreciate this cup.

Mr. CHO: Thank you.

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