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Did you know that Canadians drink roughly 14 billion cups of coffee every year? We love a cup of Joe, and our consumption is only increasing. If the world’s population wishes for more and more coffee every year, how can farmers possibly be expected to keep up? One very undesirable option is to clear more rainforest to make room for coffee plants. Another is to change farming practices, and grow coffee using ‘shade growing’ techniques, that allow for coffee to be grown under trees. (Science may even provide a viable third option.)
Shade growing coffee has benefits for the planet. Carbon is captured and trapped by the trees, helping to buffer future increases in temperature. The trees help to increase natural water cycling, increasing the amount of rain falling in these areas, and reducing the reliance on irrigation. Complex root systems of the large trees hold the soil together which helps to reduce natural disasters like landslides, and also holds onto soil moisture and nutrients better. The variety of plants growing invites diverse animal and insects to live in these areas, thereby increasing biodiversity, as well as assisting in the pollination of the plants and providing natural pest management of problematic insects. These complex habitats made up of numerous plants and animals are good for global biodiversity, protection of farming and residential lands and more.
All these benefits seem like compelling reasons to have all coffee shade grown, but only 25% of the world’s coffee is grown under full shade. Why? Well, among other reasons, shade grown coffee produces less coffee than coffee grown in full sun. So do beneficial sustainability measurements, or crop yields win out? Imagine if it was possible to have the best of both worlds. Researchers could look at the genes of different coffee plants, identify ones genetically well adapted to produce bountiful crops of coffee beans in the shade, cross breed them to produce new coffee varietals, and then only plant these new coffee strains. We could have healthier ecosystems producing just as much, if not more coffee than unhealthy monocultures of existing sun-grown coffee varieties.
And its not just coffee, scientists can identify forest trees that better withstand summer wildfires and then plant those in areas where burning events are becoming more common. Research can identify varieties of almond trees that require less water, rice that can grow in saltier water, tomatoes less likely to be eaten by insects. They can identify underwater areas suitable for growing kelp forests which can trap carbon, provide habitats for marine life, and be used as food. And this is just the beginning of the options, which is good because it is estimated that the population of the Earth will increase by 25% by 2050, which means even more people will be living on our planet and using its resources. If the population is getting bigger, but the planet is staying the same size, humanity will need to think of new ways to produce more food using less space, reduce the amount of carbon being released into our atmosphere and protect the wild spaces around us from the effects of climate change.
The genes of plant species have the potential to be utilized to better the environment, help protect us from further global warming, reduce the amount of water and insecticides used on crops, increase crop yields to help feed our growing population, and much more. All we need to do is unlock these secrets from their DNA and employ them to better our Earth.
To learn more about the benefits of shade grown coffee you may like to read this article from the Smithsonian. You may also be interested in listening to Season2, Episode 4 of the Nice Genes! podcast (coming soon) where you can hear about the importance of protecting our coral reefs.
Educators: For an additional free resource to use with your students you may like to investigate the Learn-a-long sheet for Season 2, Episode 4 of the Nice Genes! podcast when it launches.