I don’t always think about the environmental issues surrounding food purchases, mainly because it’s too complicated. When I buy a head of cabbage, I don’t think about where it is grown and how much diesel fuel it took to get to the grocery store or how much pesticide or fertilizer was used to grow it. I should, but it would take me hours of research to decide whether or not to purchase cabbage, parmesan cheese, or lasagna noodles. Reading The Secret Life of Groceries or The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes things even more complicated. But there is one place where I (and you birdwatchers) can make a difference – buy shade-grown coffee.
There are two main types of coffee, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica makes up 75–80% of the world’s coffee production and Robusta about 20%. Traditionally, Arabica beans have naturally grown in the shade, while Robusta beans have been trained to grow in the sun.
According to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, “shade-grown coffee production is the next best thing to a natural forest” because shade-coffee farm can imitate a native forest, which allows many different varieties of flora and fauna to thrive in its lush growth.
Coffee was traditionally grown as an understory crop beneath mature trees but most farms converted to full‐sun monocultures over time. As we know, the more complex the plant habitat structure – different heights and shapes – the more species of birds are likely to inhabit it. A single species of coffee trees of the same age makes for a very simple habitat and the least number of bird species.
Surrounding the coffee trees, shady fruit trees can also assist in creating a bird-friendly habitat. This is because fruit trees attract birds that can help deter pests from the growing coffee plants. According to a study in Jamaica, researchers found a 70% increase in the infestation of coffee fruits with the Coffee Berry Borer (a small beetle that harms the plants) when birds were excluded from the environment by nets. A similar study conducted in Mexico resulted in a 30-64% increase in chewing insects like caterpillars on coffee plants when there were no birds. So not only does shade-grown coffee provide a habitat for many bird species, but the birds return the favor by protecting the trees.
However, a recent article in People and Nature tells us that few people are buying shade-grown coffee. A survey of members of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology found that half (49%) of respondents reported considering bird habitat when purchasing coffee but only 38% were familiar with the Smithsonian Bird Friendly® certification and only 9% reported purchasing it.
The Bird Friendly criteria are the world’s most stringent standards for shade-grown coffee production. Using Smithsonian conservation science, the Bird Friendly gold standard does more than other eco-friendly labels to protect habitat. Identifying Bird Friendly coffees is easy, simply look for the Bird Friendly seal — the gold standard in eco-friendly, organic farming — from certified Bird Friendly roasters.
Disclaimer: I don’t receive any funding from any coffee companies for this commercial-appearing blog.