Fact sheet: Protecting coffee ecosystems
At a glance
• Nespresso works to protect coffee ecosystems by promoting sustainable agricultural best practices in
ecosystem conservation, wildlife protection and water conservation
• Sustainable agricultural training for farmers is provided by Nespresso agronomists, coffee suppliers, and
experts from the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) - a coalition of leading conservation groups
An ecosystem is a living community of plants and animals sharing an environment with non-living
elements such as soil and subject to other natural forces such as climate. Ecosystems exist on a
variety of scales. A small ecosystem could be a pond, while a larger ecosystem could be an entire
Coffee is a very important agricultural product with regard to its impact on ecosystems.
Traditionally, coffee has been grown under a forest-like canopy of shade trees in conditions that
hardly affect local flora and fauna. Shaded coffee farms have maintained many of the
characteristics of original ecosystems and represent diverse production landscapes with a high
value for local biodiversity.
Many studies have investigated the benefits associated with shade cover in coffee agricultural
systems and with traditional types of management such as agro-forestry systems. These benefits
include biological conservation, watershed protection, integrated pest management, and
Shade coffee farms are considered a habitat in their own right as they help to retain the vast
majority of bird species and most of the microorganisms, insects, and mammals that are found in
pristine rainforest. For example, researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Canterbury (New
Zealand) and Goettingen (Germany), recorded the fate of over 7,000 nests of wild bees and wasps
in undisturbed rainforest and in agricultural habitats. Conversion to intensive agriculture caused a
dramatic change in the food web, allowing a single species (a parasitic wasp) to dominate. In
contrast, plantations where coffee was grown beneath the forest canopy had similar food webs to
In addition, shade coffee farms often provide important biological corridors between protected
forest patches and help to clean water and prevent erosion.
If cultivated appropriately, coffee can be a key element of conservation efforts and biodiversity in
the tropics. On the other hand, coffee can have a negative impact on the environment if cultivated
Since the 1970s, many coffee farms were deforested, the coffee bushes were planted in dense rows
under the boiling tropical sun and doused with agrochemicals. This increased production,
sometimes dramatically, but it also increased farm management costs and – in many cases – caused
coffee quality to decline. In all cases, the environmental costs were extreme, especially the loss of
biodiversity, soil erosion and contamination from pesticides.
1. “Synergies between Agricultural Intensification and Climate Change Could Create Surprising
Vulnerabilities for Crops” Brenda Lin, Ivette Perfecto and John Vandemeer. October 2008 / Vol 58 No 9, BioScience
2. “Habitat modification alters the structure of tropical host-parasitoid food webs”. Tylianakis, JM, Tscharntke, T &
Lewis, OT. Nature, 11 January 2007.
Of the approximately 5.8 million hectares of land under cultivation, some two million hectares is
still estimated to be shade-grown. However, the percentage of coffee now grown under full sun, or
minimal shade, is growing and is more than 70 percent in countries such as Colombia or Brazil.
The switch in farming systems is leading to a loss of on-farm biodiversity, with one study showing
a drop in beetle diversity from 126 species to 29, and ant diversity from 30 to 8 species3.
Another factor that can have a negative impact on coffee ecosystems is coffee prices. When coffee
prices drop farms might be converted into use for housing, cattle ranches and other intensive
agricultural products. Also, as coffee farmers fail to earn acceptable incomes, shade coffee farms
might be converted to full-sun technological production, or to non-agricultural use, resulting in a
dramatic drop in species diversity. For decades, high productivity was often achieved by reducing
naturally high diversity of plants in natural ecosystems to coffee monocultures and by using
dangerous agrochemicals. These agrochemicals can have long-term consequences on non-target
Through its AAA Sustainable Quality™ Coffee Program Nespresso is working with different partners
including the Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) to protect coffee
ecosystems by promoting sustainable agricultural best practices in conservation, wildlife
protection and water conservation.
The Rainforest Alliance and SAN, along with other conservation groups, have strived to find
economic and other incentives to motivate farmers to maintain their forested, high-biodiversity
farms. In order to earn Rainforest Alliance Certification™, for example, monoculture farms in areas
that were once naturally forested have to plant enough trees to make adequate wildlife habitat.
Farmers benefit, too, as the trees bring pollinating insects, protect water supplies and provide
fruits, firewood, medicinal plants and other valuable goods.
There are many benefits to farmers from the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Coffee Program.
First, best practices in sustainable and quality coffees are disseminated to small-scale farmers who
do not usually benefit from this information. Training on best practices is not only provided by
Nespresso agronomists but also involves technical experts from the SAN. This ensures that local
conditions are taken into account.
Secondly, Nespresso helps farmers receive premium prices by helping to improve the quality of the
coffee, while also providing them with greater stability and security through the creation of long-
term partnerships with buyers. Farmers, however, are not obligated to sell to Nespresso and they
remain free to choose their buyer. The Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Coffee Program
commitment to driving Real Farmer Income™ serves to ensure that coffee farmers will continue to
cultivate coffee in ways that are in harmony with the natural environment and sensitive
The general idea of the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Coffee Program is to help farmers find
the right balance in managing water, soil and biodiversity while increasing productivity and coffee
quality. Good soil, for example, is fundamental for growing healthy coffee plants. Soil must be rich
in nutrients and contain appropriate acidic levels. If soil is deficient in nutrients, fertilisers may
augment them. However, excessive use of fertilisers can cause the soil to erode. As such, the
Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Coffee Program discourages unnecessary use of fertilisers.
This is the same case for insecticides and a combination of integrated pest management strategies
is offered. This might include the use of mechanical devices, biological and chemical management.
3. “Biodiversity: Delivering Results”, UNDP and GEF, May 2008.
Soil fertility is also improved through the promotion of shade coffee as trees prevent rainwater
from falling with too much intensity, which can also cause erosion. In return, trees used for shade
such as banana, citrus, avocado, and other native trees, not only provide nutrients to the soil but
also offer additional sources of income for farmers. In addition, coffee plants are also quite
sensitive to changes in microclimate and shade helps keep the coffee cooler during the day and
warmer at night.
The Nespresso AAA Program also protects the ecosystem by working with farmers on planning and
management of protected natural areas. This will allow the farmer to grow coffee in harmony with
flora and fauna. Furthermore, the Program precludes hunting and captivity of wild animals, as well
as illegal logging.
Beyond preserving ecosystems Nespresso has also implemented some initiatives that seek to
restore ecosystems. For instance, planting trees near water sources or providing funding in Costa
Rica and Caldas, Colombia, for treating residual water in central mills.
Through the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Coffee Program Nespresso hopes to demonstrate
the importance of trees for their ecological services and products (such as nutrient inputs,
microclimatic buffering, biodiversity conservation, and watershed stabilisation), allow farmers to
diversify from a monoculture crop system and demonstrate that pests and diseases can be
Nespresso has recently committed to source 80% of its coffee from the AAA Sustainable Quality™
Coffee Program including Rainforest Alliance Certification™ by 2013. This move towards certified
coffee means that farms will have to meet rigorous standards developed by the Rainforest Alliance,
which require them to improve even further their sustainable agricultural practices. For
consumers this means they will have independent assurance that their coffee comes from areas in
which both biodiversity and quality are protected.