Coffee and the Promise of Agroforestry

red coffee beans

Cultivated in roughly seventy countries around the equator, coffee thrives in some of the most biodiverse regions of the world. In fact, coffee co-evolved with hundreds of other plant species and grows naturally under tall, dense rainforest canopies. 

However, in the past several hundred years (as the demand for coffee has increased and commercialized agriculture has expanded), monoculture coffee plantations have slowly replaced ancient forests and even traditional dynamic agroforestry systems.

The Problem with Monoculture Coffee Plantations 

Monoculture systems expose both coffee beans and the soil to UV radiation, high temperatures, and heavy rain. Conventional coffee plantations also dramatically decrease surrounding biodiversity and displace wildlife, increase the incidence of pests and disease, and require the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and harmful agricultural chemicals to maintain. Within the context of climate change, monoculture systems are also less efficient at sequestering carbon and less resilient to extreme weather than are polyculture systems.

Changing the Tide

Most recently, climate change has also become a significant factor in traditional coffee cultivation. As temperatures increase in many places, rainfall is also decreasing. Together, these two shifts have caused coffee yields to decline dramatically in some places. As global warming increases, farmers are attempting to adapt by (once again) turning to more resilient and biodiverse farms.

With specialty coffee consumption and the demand for shade-grown coffee continuing to grow, farmers who move in this direction are also able to earn shade-grown, organic, biodynamic, and Fair Trade premiums. Around the world, a powerful movement is beginning to form as farmers once again invest in whole systems thinking, integrated pest management, and agroforestry.

The Promise of Agroforestry 

When farmers utilize dynamic agroforestry systems, surrounding ecosystems benefit. Wildlife returns, pollinator populations are more robust, and delicate tropical soils can make a rebound. Farms that were once contributing to climate change and soil erosion an instead become net carbon sinks. And as smallholder producers begin to grow a larger greater variety of crops, their families and the surrounding communities benefit from diversified income and access to better nutrition. 

Dynamic agroforestry systems represent an ecological solution capable of fighting climate change, improving biodiversity and human health, and bettering the livelihoods of small-scale producers. And of course this is where consumers come in: by supporting the work of farmers, co-ops, and supporting brands and organizations with their dollar. 

Making a Difference

Organizing our purchasing power is an essential part of growing the regenerative movement and fostering lasting change across our agricultural landscapes. The next time you’re in the grocery store, consider these four key tips for supporting ecologically-grown coffee and advancing the regenerative movement:

  1. Look for coffee blends labeled organic, biodynamic, “beyond-organic” or “produced in regenerative systems”.
  2. Purchase strictly shade-grown coffee.
  3. Buy coffee from Fair Trade companies that support cooperatives and small-scale producers.
  4. Compost your used coffee grounds!
coffee beans


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