Coffee growing in India

by on October 20, 2011

Legend has it that coffee was smuggled into India around 1600, spread around the region by Dutch traders, but not commercially grown until the early 1800s when the British began establishing coffee plantations. Today, India produces approximately 300,000 metric tons of coffee annually; around 30% is arabica, while the rest is mostly robusta. Kents and S795 are two popular arabica varieties grown in India.

Southern India; Western Ghats in pink. Click to enlarge.

Nearly a quarter of the coffee that is exported from India goes to Italy (no doubt largely robusta that is a component in espresso blends). The United States receives only about 1% of India’s coffee exports. Frequently what ones sees offered in the U.S. is “monsooned” coffee — green coffee stored in open warehouses and subjected to wet monsoon wind, simulating ocean-going ship conditions of yore. This hardly represents the many interesting and varied coffees grown in India — and we’ll be reviewing several in a follow-up post. First, let’s take a look at how coffee is grown in India, with an eye towards biodiversity.

Indian coffee growing regions

Nearly 390,000 ha are planted in coffee in India, 70% of which are small farms of less than 10 ha. The vast majority of coffee is grown in the three southern states of Karnataka (71%), Kerala (22%), and Tamil Nadu (5%). Eighty percent of India’s arabica coffee is grown in Karnataka. In this region, arabica coffee is grown at elevations of 1000 to 1500 m, with some production up to 2000 m. Robusta, of course, is grown at lower elevations. Some familiar regional designations are Chikmagalur, Coorg, and Mysore (all in Karnataka), and Madras (Tamil Nadu).

These southern coffee growing regions are in the Western Ghats mountain range, a biodiversity hotspot that runs some 1450 km along India’s southwest coast. Over a third of the region’s 5000 plant species are found no place else on earth. BirdLife International has also designated a Western Ghats Endemic Bird Area, as it has 16 restricted-range species confined to this region. Among them is the engaging little Black-and-rufous Flycatcher (Ficedula nigrorufa), right. This species lives only in the Western Ghats, and can be found in coffee plantations, but only if there is dense undergrowth. Another near-threatened flycatcher endemic to the Western Ghats is the Nilgiri Flycatcher (Eumyias albicaudatus), below right. This bird is declining due to habitat destruction, but it can be found on shaded coffee plantations, and this is important to its conservation.

And I usually don’t mention insect diversity here because it is so under-studied in general in these areas. However, in addition to birds I do a fair amount of insect work, especially with dragonflies and damselflies. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) just released a report, The Status and Distribution of Freshwater Biodiversity in the Western Ghats, India which notes that this area has 174 species of dragonflies and damselflies, 69 of which are endemic. Ten species are of conservation concern,and they, like many other aquatic organisms discussed in the report, are threatened by agricultural pesticides present in the waterways; coffee farms are specifically mentioned. These insects make excellent environmental indicators because of their aquatic and upland life stages that are often tied to specific types of habitat and their sensitivity to water conditions.

Most Indian coffee is shade coffee

Most in coffee in India is grown under shade; pepper and cardamom are frequently planted with coffee as supplemental crops. Not all shade is the same quality. Up to 50 species are used as shade trees, and while they may be comprised of native tree species (various Ficus spp., Syzigium spp., and Artocarpus integrifolia),  increasingly farmers look to supplement their income with fast growing timber species, especially silky oak/silver oak, Grevillea robusta, a tree native to Australia. Various studies

have shown that silver oak is not preferred by birds, and an increase in its use corresponds to a decrease in bird diversity. Some estates severely prune their shade trees, destroying much of the canopy, and it is often timed to coincide with post -harvest — and bird nesting.

Typical arrangement: coffee in the understory, peppercorn vines growing up the trunks of shade trees.

Relatively little coffee grown in India is certified organic. According to the Coffee Board of India, only about 2600 ha of coffee are organic, occurring mostly in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. A number of pests and diseases of coffee in India are fought with chemicals, although integrated pest management is also increasingly used. For example, one prominent pest, mostly of arabica, is the white stem borer (Xylotrechus quadripes), a fairly large beetle. Pesticides once popular for control are now banned, but since the beetle likes to lay its eggs in sunny positions, shade trees are a control option, as are pheromone traps in development.

As in Latin America, various studies have indicated that many bird species can be found in shaded coffee farms in India, although the number of species was slightly lower than in forests and the diversity in farms leaned towards towards those species that were more adaptable, favored more open or disturbed areas, and that did not depend exclusively on a diet of insects.

Coffee plantations in India are often surrounded by native forests or preserves, and insects, birds, and other wildlife can move between and among the forests and coffee farms. This is extremely valuable for conservation, particularly if the farms are using few chemicals and growing coffee under high quality, native shade.

The C&C tasting crew will be dipping in to some Indian coffees in the coming weeks. Look for a post or two with short reviews of a number of coffees representing the variety that India has to offer. I hope doing a series of mini-reviews will inspire American consumers in particular to expand their coffee horizons and seek out some offerings from this interesting origin.

Links to more information:

  • The articles on the I Need Coffee web site written by coffee farmers Dr. Anand Titus and his wife Geeta Pereira include many profusely illustrated posts on all aspects of coffee growing, biodiversity, climate change, and related topics. You can, and perhaps should, spend hours reading through their detailed information.
  • Ecoagriculture is a relatively new site promoting sustainable agriculture, focusing on coffee and tea, in India. Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network are part of the initiative, so it includes resources on RA certification. There is also an associated blog.
  • India, through a birder’s eyes (New York Times)
  • Nature Conservation Foundation

My posts on research studying coffee and biodiversity in India:

Rufous-and-black Flycatcher image from Wikimedia Commons; Nilgiri Flycatcher photo by Sandeep Somasekharan; coffee plantation from INeedCoffee/Michael Allen Smith; all under Creative Commons licenses.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Coffee regions

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

PJeganathan October 21, 2011 at 8:18 am


Nice post. Just wanted to point out that caption for the photo of the Damselfly says that its of Protosticta sanguinostigma. But the photograph is of Copera sp. See the similar looking species here

with best wishes



JACraves October 21, 2011 at 11:42 am

Jegan — thanks. I couldn’t access your link, but did look at other Copera sp. and agree the photo I had was misidentified. I removed it.


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