It can be borderline impossible for some of us to not have that morning coffee to jump-start our day. But as with many goods we get to enjoy nowadays, there are environmental downsides. Agriculture is known to affect biodiversity and impact the structure of ecosystems.
So what is the impact of coffee on biodiversity and what can we do as consumers to avoid the consequences of coffee culture?
It’s important to note that there are two types of coffee beans that make it into our coffee pots— arabica beans and robusta. The second one has seen its cultivation grow exponentially over the last decade, and scientists were worried that this change had the potential to have a negative effect on biodiversity.
Their concerns came from the fact that robusta requires growers to thin forests in order to let in more light through the canopy. A study conducted in Western Ghats, India between 2013 and 2015 evaluated whether or not two species of coffee from the robusta family had equivalent avian conservation values. The results, although surprising, brought good news to the scientist. They discovered that even though coffee plantations can’t compare to undisturbed habitats like their surrounding nonfarmed forests that host 350 to 400 bird species, coffee plantations were less harmful to bird diversity than previously expected. Arabica plantations with around 95% canopy cover and Robusta plantations that hover round 80%, had a very similar amount of bird species diversity. They counted 79 forest-dependent bird species utilizing the plantations. In comparison, rubber and palm oil plantations have about 40 and 35 species (respectively) of birds living there.
It has been acknowledged that protected areas alone are not enough to ensure biodiversity conservation, and that the surrounding agricultural matrix should also be considered in successful management strategies. The realization that an environmentally friendly coffee production can generate benefits for both local communities and ecosystems is good news. However, shade and sun-grown coffee criteria must specifically address the prevention of forest clearance, and regional conditions should be considered for places where there are still large tracts of primary forest.
It’s also very important to realize that ensuring biodiversity conservation will also have benefits on coffee production. A study conducted on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro showed that in locations where local birds and bats had access to the plants, there was almost a ten percent higher fruit set. This is likely because the animals eliminate pests that would otherwise feed on the coffee plants. The research on pollination also showed interesting results. As arabica is self-pollinating you would expect bees and other insects to not have a big influence on productivity of plantations. Yet, the researchers found that if pollinators have access to the coffee blossoms, the cherries were about seven percent heavier, which contributes to a higher coffee quality.
These examples show that working hand in hand with local biodiversity has greater positive impacts than what could be expected.
So what can you do to ensure that your coffee has been grown in a shaded environment and respects biodiversity? You can look for certain certifications that specifically target these criteria. Rainforest Alliance Certified Coffee and Bird Friendly certification are two of the most trusted certifications used now. By choosing these, you make sure that your morning coffee isn’t contributing to habitat loss for birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and insects!