How to get Mexican shade-grown coffee into the hands of coffee lovers north of the border?
The question prompted a two-day meeting of growers, distributors, roasters and retailers in Oaxaca last month, and the emerging answer appears to be this:
Label it and they will drink.
That, though, is easier said than done. Growing coffee under a forest canopy is far better for the environment than felling trees and cultivating faster growing, hybrid beans in the open. But as yet there’s no single, universal label consumers can rely on to certify that the beans they’re buying are truly shade-grown.
And any such labeling initiative might risk confusion with other campaigns—organic certification, for instance, or the fair-trade effort to ensure adequate living and working conditions for small coffee producers.
The Oaxaca workshop, convened by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), marked a first step toward development of a single label that accounts for all these causes. If the effort succeeds, specialty-coffee consumers would no longer need to parse labeling criteria—and would spare themselves from so-called “label fatigue.”
Sustainable coffee producers, meanwhile, would gain recognition—and marketing benefit—for all their efforts.
“Our coffee is certified as organic, but it is both organic and shade grown,” says Claudia Uribe, franchise director of La Selva Café, a Mexico City-based chain of coffee bars and restaurants that sell coffee grown by farm cooperatives in Chiapas state. “We need a label that will show that.”
The CEC, the tri-national environmental agency created under the North American Free Trade Agreement, sees shade-grown coffee as an important force for both environmental protection and rural development in Mexico.
In Mexico, the world’s fifth ranking coffee producer, 90% of coffee is grown in the traditional way: under the forest canopy, without harming the local ecology.
That’s the case in part due to financial pressures. Shade-coffee farmers don’t rely on chemical fertilizers or pesticides, which for many of them simply are too expensive. Instead, they depend on the fertility of the soil to nurture their plants and on natural predators to ward off pests.
Small wonder, then, that shade coffee meets many requirements of organic coffee.
Hans Herrmann, a biodiversity specialist with the CEC, says growing coffee under environmentally friendly conditions has many advantages, a key one being the protection of forest and wildlife habitat.
“This is very important to Mexico, a mega diversity country whose deforestation rate of 4% a year is one of the highest in the world,” he says. “By preserving forests, Mexico is also protecting 284 species of birds that migrate each year from Canada and the U.S.”
Farmers also benefit. Since the coffee is grown under near-organic conditions, they don’t expose themselves or their water supplies to contaminants. And their land remains fertile, providing them and their families with a steady source of employment.
Consumers, meanwhile, are becoming more aware of the advantages of shade coffee, which is virtually chemical-free. While some shade coffee can be of poor quality, the slowly maturing shade-grown bean often produces a richer, sweeter flavor than its sun-grown counterpart.
“It’s a win-win scenario,” says Herrmann. “The consumer, the farmer and the environment all benefit.”
Growing consumer interest in specialty coffee is making it possible for Mexico’s small farmers to break into this dynamic market, which is growing at 10% a year.
Yet there are obstacles. One involves distribution. Much shade coffee is grown in isolated, difficult-to-reach areas. Bad weather and poor travel conditions hamper transport of green coffee beans to storage facilities. Then there’s the problem of labeling. Not all shade coffee, for instance, is organically grown.
“We have a segmented market that can create confusion among consumers,” says José Luís Samaniego, international affairs coordinator for Mexico’s Environment Ministry and coordinator of the Oaxaca workshop.
Despite these difficulties, specialty coffee sales in Canada, Europe and the United States have grown in the past five years while the rest of the coffee market has remained stable.
Although shade-grown and other specialty coffees typically costs about 30% more, the higher price doesn’t appear off-putting to consumers. The specialty coffee market in the U.S. alone has reached $1.5 billion dollars.
And the prospects for shade-grown coffee in particular appear bright. A recent survey conducted by the CEC indicates one out of five Canadian and U.S. consumers is “very interested” in buying Mexican shade coffee. And early efforts by the Starbuck’s chain to market shade-grown coffee have proved successful.
Says the CEC’s Herrmann: “This is a great way by personal choice that an American or a Canadian can help many Mexicans.”
- Cynthia Hawes