Share it or spare it?

by on June 21, 2011

Intensifying production while conserving biodiversity

Food security and the ability of agricultural lands to feed over 9 billion people by 2050 is an increasingly-discussed topic. Part of this issue is how to conserve biodiversity while boosting agricultural capacity, either by increasing the productivity of land currently in production through some sort of intensification, or expanding the farmed area itself. Two methods of production are frequently mentioned in the overall debate: “land sparing” and “wildlife-friendly farming.” If this sounds familiar, it’s because these concepts have helped frame the sustainable/shade coffee certification movement.

Increasing yield is not the only way for coffee farmers to increase their income, of course. Increasing quality can also lead to handsome profits for farmers. However, most coffee grown around the world — in tropical biodiversity hotspots — is destined for the commodity market. A look at how the agricultural models attempt to balance productivity and biodiversity can reveal some of the complexities of coffee production, and the challenges for coffee certifications.

Example of how current land use can be modified to increase production using land sparing or wildlife-friendly farming. From Phalan et al. 2010.

Land sparing. This approach promotes the intensification of agriculture on existing farmed land in order to increase yield so that more land does not have to be converted. This allows for adjacent land to be permanently preserved. Biodiversity within the crop space itself is limited, but the protected natural habitats are meant to harbor species native to the region.

The catch-all term for this type of coffee agriculture (minus the set-aside component) is “sun coffee,” as coffee is grown in a monoculture under full sun, rather than under a canopy of trees.  Growing coffee in the sun generally requires generous use of pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers.

Wildlife-friendly farming. As the name implies, this approach seeks to preserve biodiversity within the agricultural landscape via modifications of the production area (addition of different crops, incorporation of natural habitat) and/or more eco-friendly growing practices (reduction in agrochemical use, organic mulching).  A variety of fauna can utilize the farmed land, but this type of production method usually means lower crop yield per unit area.

In the case of coffee, wildlife-friendly farming means the use of a multi-layered canopy of diverse shade tree species, limited pruning of the shade trees and their epiphytes, preservation of leaf litter, and minimal (or no) use of chemicals — all hallmarks of what we call “shade coffee.”

Coffee certifications favor wildlife-friendly farming

When we talk about coffee production, birds, and conserving biodiversity, intensification is the boogeyman — the state to be avoided. Sun coffee has been considered the antithesis of shade coffee and all that is good in sustainable coffee growing. Thus, aspects of wildlife-friendly farming have become the building blocks of many coffee certifications. Some, like Smithsonian Bird-Friendly, deal exclusively with wildlife-friendly farming techniques while others, such as Rainforest Alliance, incorporate wildlife-friendly criteria along with other types of requirements for certification.

Wildlife-friendly coffee farming (from here on out, we’ll just call it shade coffee) is therefore the intuitive choice in the spare-or-share debate. But there are rarely one-size-fits-all solutions in ecology.  While the benefits of shade coffee to birds and other biodiversity are great, even high quality shade coffee does not hold the same levels of biodiversity as intact natural habitat. This is especially true for forest specialists that do not thrive in small forest remnants or agroforestry areas. Many of these important species are unlikely to reproduce and maintain their populations in shade coffee alone if there is not gene flow from nearby natural habitats. Some sort of land sparing (protection of native habitat on the farm) is likely needed to conserve species of high conservation concern in at least some areas, even if shade coffee techniques are used.

There are many variations of “shade.” There is rustic shade similar to forest, all the way to shade limited to a few pruned, non-native tree species. The closer we approach the latter, the less value a shade coffee farm has for biodiversity. Shade coffee may not be suitable if it creates expanses of marginal habitat for species that need high quality land, or if the production areas prevent the movement of some species between patches of prime habitat. Incorporating specific criteria into certification standards provides assurance that the amount and type of shade fosters biodiversity. Unfortunately, becoming certified is beyond the means of many farmers.

Another issue is that in some coffee-growing regions, growing coffee under shade is not practical. At high elevations, for instance, light and humidity levels limit growing coffee under multiple layers of shade because of increased fungal diseases and decreased yield. In these instances, where coffee is grown in sun, biodiversity need not be forsaken if some form of land sparing is utilized.

Should we revisit intensification of coffee production?

There is some evidence that the concept of land sparing can help prevent deforestation, which in turn helps preserve biodiversity. In Latin America during the 1980s, countries with a higher crop yields had lower deforestation rates, and countries that increased the crop yields per unit area had lower rates of cropland increase. Similarly, between 1970 and 1995, a period of intensification of coffee farming in Latin America, there was a 44% increase in production, largely due to intensification, while the area planted with coffee increased 27%. Colombia is a country that embraced intensification as a way to combat the arrival of coffee rust; between 1970-1997, more than 70% of the coffee area in Colombia intensified coffee growing practices. During this period, the area planted in coffee decreased 18.5% and forest and secondary growth increased 12.1%.

This suggests that with very careful planning, intensification of coffee production with planned land sparing could take place without disastrous results for the environment. Among other things, a land sparing scheme won’t work for biodiversity preservation unless the set-aside lands are actively protected and probably managed in some way so that they do not become degraded.

And while the production area itself can be farmed more intensively, it can’t be farmed in an “anything goes” manner. If intensification results in negative impacts beyond the farm (e.g., in the protected area, such as pesticide run-off), then the value of the protected area is likely to be diminished.

Finally, there needs to be some incentive for farmers to protect their spared land. Adjacent forest patches can provide benefits to coffee production even if the farmed area is sun coffee. This includes a source of pollinators as well as birds and insects which prey upon coffee pests. However, further financial benefits will likely need to be built into this scheme. If all economic gain is seen in the  high-yielding production areas of their property, farmers may be inclined to expand those areas at the expense of protecting habitat.

How do we integrate agriculture and biodiversity?

When ethical consumers consider a coffee purchase, they are often presented with a dichotomous view of coffee production. The reality is more nuanced. Full-blown “wildlife-friendly” farming may not be the only or best choice (or even an option for some farmers). And “land sparing” may not be its polar opposite. Coffee can be and is grown in a myriad of blended models. Consider patches of sun coffee, supplemented by some artificial fertilizers, using no pesticides, interplanted with natural habitat and fruit and timber trees, with protected forest nearby. In some instances, this could be preferable to an extensive landscape of shade coffee (especially low quality shade).

Right now, the obstacles to establishing criteria to certify blended models are daunting. For example, how do you set a threshold on how much land must be set aside? Is 60% better than 55%, and how can it be measured?  The amount and quality of land to be set aside would need to be determined on a regional basis, and be dependent on local land use, conservation issues, coffee farming traditions and conditions, and farmer needs.

This post is already long-winded, so it represent a simplification of a very complex issue. It’s not meant to endorse sun coffee or intensifying coffee production, or to disparage coffee certifications. It’s just an exercise to illustration the complexities of sustainable coffee production, and provide some food for thought.


This post drew from the following sources:

  • Fischer, J., Brosi, B., Daily, G., Ehrlich, P., Goldman, R., Goldstein, J., Lindenmayer, D., Manning, A., Mooney, H., Pejchar, L., Ranganathan, J., & Tallis, H. 2008. Should agricultural policies encourage land sparing or wildlife-friendly farming? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6:380-385. DOI: 10.1890/070019

  • Green, R., Cornell, S.J., Schalemann, J.P.W., Balmford, A. 2005. Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature Science 307:550-555. DOI: 10.1126/science.1106049

  • Guhl, A. 2008. Coffee production intensification and landscape change in Colombia, 1970-2002. Pp. 93-115 in Land Change Science in the Tropics: Changing Agricultural Landscapes, A. C. Millington and W. Jepson, eds. Springer: New York.

  • Phalan, B., Balmford, A., Green, R.E., & Scharlemann, J.P.W. 2011. Minimising the harm to biodiversity of producing more food globally. Food Policy, DOI: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2010.11.008

  • Rice, R. 1999. A Place Unbecoming: The Coffee Farm of Northern Latin America Geographical Review, 89 (4) DOI: 10.2307/216102

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Certifications,Research on coffee growing

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