Shalene Jha

Photo Credit: Rodolfo Suarez | Daily Texan Staff

Increasing implementation of non-shade coffee production, also called intensive coffee production, has resulted in an unsustainable practice that needs to be changed, according to a UT researcher. 

“Intensive coffee production is not sustainable,” Shalene Jha, integrative biology assistant professor, said in a statement released by the University in April 2014. “You exhaust the soil, and after a couple of decades, it can no longer grow coffee.”

An alternative that avoids the environmentally harmful effects of intensive coffee production is increasing cultivation of traditional shade-grown coffee, Jha said in the statement.

Traditional shade-grown coffee plantations have existed for centuries and provide ecosystem-friendly services, such as the filtering of water and air, for their rainforest habitat.

“The oldest coffee farms in the world have thrived for centuries because the forest replenishes the soil for them,” Jha said in the statement.

Shade-grown coffee plantations only use the arabica variety, which produces a higher-quality coffee as compared to intensive coffee production, Jah said in the statement. Non-shade-grown coffee can use any type of coffee plant species, such as robusta, which produces a lower-quality coffee, according to Jah.

In a study Jha co-authored, her team found that the proportion of land used to cultivate shade-grown coffee has fallen by approximately 20 percent since 1996 — even during a time when customers, especially in the United States, shifted toward purchasing more specialty coffees, which account for 37 percent of U.S. coffee sales.  

“We were surprised that, despite two decades of growth in public awareness of where coffee comes, shade-grown coffee only seems to be grown in a few regions,” Jha said in the statement.

According to Jha, incentives from groups such as the government and aid organizations are necessary in order to increase the proportion of coffee cultivation dedicated to shade-grown farming.

Chemistry sophomore Thuong Thai said she believes incentives will ease the burden on farmers who transition from intensive coffee production to shade-grown coffee production.  

“The farmers will have to essentially uproot their lifestyle in order to become shade-grown coffee farmers,” Thai said. “Any sort of financial package would help.”

Jha encourages individuals to ask for shade-grown coffee when ordering at coffeehouses.

However, Karan Mahendroo, business honors and Plan II freshman and employee at Starbucks, the largest coffeehouse chain in the world, says that none of his customers have requested shade-grown coffee.

“A majority of our customers already have our menu memorized, and they know that we don’t carry shade-grown coffee,” Mahendroo said.

Coffee growth worldwide is shifting from the shade grown coffee toward the more intensive style of farming e.g. sun grown coffee, which could have damaging effects on the environment.

Photo Credit: Shweta Gulati | Daily Texan Staff

If you drink one type of sustainable coffee, your next caffeine buzz may be in short supply, according to research by one UT professor.

Biology assistant professor Shalene Jha found that the proportion of land used for shade-grown coffee, or coffee grown below the canopy of a forest, has decreased worldwide by 20 percent since 1996. 

“The way coffee is grown across the globe has changed a lot in the last 20 years,” Jha said. “[It’s] shifting more towards sun style, with open trees.”

According to Jha, who studies conservation biology, shade-grown coffee provides a diverse habitat and resources for native animals. Jha said the growing alternative, sun-grown coffee, involves an intensive form of farming in which forests are cleared to make room for coffee cultivation, which could have damaging environmental effects.

“Shade-grown coffee supports a lot of biodiversity — it allows the soil to replenish nutrients,” Jha said. “It provides natural pest control and a habitat for birds. The thing about [sun-grown coffee] is it’s a form of short-term production [that] doesn’t last long, and it tends to lead to deforestation.”

Jha said the shift in coffee growth is a result of large drops in the price of coffee worldwide. Since growing sun-grown coffee is less expensive and does not require certification, many growers have shifted to the more intensive style of farming to keep costs down.

Beth Beall, president of Texas Coffee Traders, an Austin roasting company that has several coffee shops on campus, said, despite the decrease in shade-grown farming, sales of the coffee in the U.S. and locally have increased over the past few years. According to Beall, the company’s sales of organic shade-grown coffee have increased by 25 percent each year for the past two years, but there is often a trade-off consumers face between quality coffee and lower prices.

“People come into Coffee Traders daily asking for organic and fair trade coffees,” Beall said in an email. “From the consumer side, our sales are up, but there is a push back when prices rise due to the higher costs associated with an organic or small farm coffee.”

Beall said one reason for the decline in shade grown production is the cost of certification for farmers.

“Once an organic farm is approved, the farmer must pay the certification fee, the fertilizers used must be organic, and an inspector must be paid to inspect the farm annually,” Beall said. “All of this is on the gamble that the coffee will sell at a higher price in the market.”

English senior Cara Shaffer said, although price matters when she buys coffee, ultimately, she would go with the more environmentally friendly brand.

“I’m a poor college student, so I care about the price, but I do like trees and the environment, so I think, honestly, I’d pay a little more [for shade-grown coffee],” Shaffer said.

University of Washington professor Joshua Tewksbury discusses interesting facts about chili peppers during a talk in the Moffett Molecular Biology Building on Monday afternoon. Tewksbury’s lecture was part of a larger discussion to promote awareness about the importance of studying natural history.

Photo Credit: Jarrid Denman | Daily Texan Staff

Hot wings are a college game day staple, but students don’t often question what brings the heat. Visiting natural history professor Joshua Tewksbury spoke Monday on why chilli peppers are so hot.

Tewksbury said the main component to the heat when eating chili peppers is the capsaicin, which is a type of capsaicinoid. According to Tewksbury, heat in peppers is determined by genetics.

“Capsaicin is the active ingredient that makes chilies hot. There are about 30 orthologs called ‘capsaicinoids,’ two of which we respond to,”
Tewksbury said.

A chemical ecologist by trade, Tewksbury said that chemistry is not so essential to his work of understanding why chilies are hot.

“You don’t have to be a true chemist to do this work. … I’m an ecologist first and a chemist because that’s where my questions have led me,” he said.

Biology assistant professor Shalene Jha said the chemical ecology aspect of plant species and how they interact with one another relates to the development of a protection mechanism in the plants, which occurs over time. In the case of chilies, the protection mechanism is the heat-producing capsaicinoids.

“Chemistry governs or is extremely important for species interactions, so, whether you’re talking about insects chewing on plant tissue or poking their little mouth parts into berries, chemistry dictates a lot of what happens and what can happen,” Jha said. “When people talk about chemical ecology, especially when it’s related to a defense compound like a plant defense or herbivory predation to their seeds, it’s costly to [plants] to produce this weapon.” 

Haldre Rogers, ecology and evolutionary biology faculty fellow at Rice University, said her research in the spread of seeds by birds shows another way in which plants ensure the continuation of their species. Dispersion of seeds, such as production of capsaicin, is a protection mechanism.

“The research that I do also looks at the role of seed dispersal by birds in plant populations,” Rogers said. “The similarity is that, in both [chemistry and ecology] systems, there are a multitude of ecological interactions happening and to figure out which ones are the most significant for determining the plant population and what’s going on with the plant population.”

Tewksbury noted that, while capsaicin doesn’t prevent human consumption of chilies, the protection mechanism is effective in most cases.

“We are the only mammals I’ve ever seen that eat chilies,” Tewksbury said.