Why You Should Be Drinking Shade-Grown Coffee

With all the reasons coffee has been in the news lately (droughts in Brazil, price fluctuations, precarious forecasts due to climate change), you’d be forgiven for not seeing any immediate link to migratory bird habitats ...

And depending on what coffee you purchase, while you might see organic or fair trade certifications, you again could easily miss any reference to bird-friendly coffee.  

But as we’ll show in this post, the interplay between coffee production and bird habitats is one of the most important dynamics in the coffee market today, with far-reaching consequences for sustainability and the future of coffee production as we know it.

Let’s first set up some context. 

Coffee grows in tropical climates within certain altitude ranges, and the traditional growing method is in direct sunlight.  In dense, tropical or subtropical climates, this can mean clear-cutting native forests to make way for neatly aligned rows of coffee trees.

Particularly in Central and South America, these climates are also critical habitats for migratory birds, which are already being impacted by significant deforestation around the globe.

The market for coffee is massive and there’s a lot of money at stake, which is a big reason why it’s this way. From 2019/2020, the US imported roughly 3.8 billion pounds of coffee, according to data from the International Coffee Organization. Sun-grown coffee generates a higher yield than shade-grown coffee, and so farms with open lots can produce more coffee and thus, sell more. It’s a short-term economic trade-off.

In response to this, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), which is tasked with understanding bird migration and the broader connection to biodiversity, administers a Bird Friendly® certification. This label certifies coffee farms based on SMBC criteria that are scientifically proven to support bird habitats.  

But despite the presence of these criteria since 1997, societal awareness of this certification and the broader issues is lacking.   

This is illustrated by a March 2021 People and Nature research paper titled “Tapping birdwatchers to promote bird-friendly coffee consumption and conserve birds”, which found that in a 2016 survey of 912 individuals affiliated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (who also identified themselves as coffee-drinkers and birdwatchers), only 9% reported purchasing certified Bird Friendly® coffee. One of the main reported limitations was lack of awareness. And if folks affiliated with a preeminent organization dedicated to birds and the natural world were only minimally aware of this certification, imagine what the rate of awareness would be with the rest of us!

The awareness deficiency, even at the coffee roaster level, is supported by our database of thousands of single origin coffees sold by hundreds of different roasters.  Of all the roasters we have assessed, we can probably count on one hand the number who exclusively sell certified Bird Friendly® coffees. 

One of the authors of the March 2021 article is Professor Amanda Rodewald, the Garvin Professor of Ornithology and Director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University.

We caught up with Professor Rodewald during a break in her field work. As she puts it, “When most people think about conservation, they picture parks, protected areas, and land that is not actively used by people, except maybe for recreation. But conservation isn’t that limited.”

Shade-grown coffee production is actually one of the most sustainable agricultural systems, according to the Professor, not just because it produces coffee or fruit, but because of derivative benefits such as maintaining forest cover, promoting biodiversity, and preventing soil erosion.

The SMBC echoes these benefits and in its literature adds many more, such as pollination, carbon sequestration, and water retention. Further, a tree canopy protects coffee crops from extreme weather events, relative to a completely exposed sun-grown lot out in the open.

And so while birds are named in the certification, the benefits reach far beyond our little migratory friends.  Says Professor Rodewald, “Shade coffee farms can provide suitable habitat to birds and other species, including frogs, butterflies, orchids, and mammals. Many migratory birds spend roughly half of each year on shade coffee farms in Latin America, and research shows that they can thrive in farms with abundant and diverse trees.”

On the coffee side of things, it’s important to add that shade-grown coffee is considered higher quality, in that shaded environments slow down the ripening process, allowing denser, richer flavors to emerge. Shade-grown coffee can also fetch a higher price, benefiting farmers.

As a side note, there’s an important distinction to make here.  “Shade-grown” does not necessarily mean bird-friendly.  Shade is most bird-friendly when it’s produced by native trees, that in turn support native insects and biodiversity. In order to promote a shade-grown designation, some farmers plant non-native trees to form a post-hoc canopy, which technically provides shade, but few of the other intended ecological benefits.

As we wrote about in our blog post about the organic certification, traceability can help legitimize claims of shade-grown coffee: the more a consumer can trace back a coffee to a place of origin, the more likely that designations like shade-grown can be verified.

In any event, as the Professor says, with the multitude of clear benefits of legitimate bird-friendly, shade-grown coffee, it should really be considered a “win-win-win” scenario in environmental, social, and economic terms.    

So where does all of this leave us? There is an impactful and achievable alternative to the traditional growing methods that are causing widespread environmental damage.   

What can coffee drinkers do? Purchase Bird Friendly® coffees, knowing that those farms are growing coffee in accordance with the SMBC’s criteria. 

As we said above, there are only a handful of roasters who dedicate themselves to Bird Friendly® coffee, although there are probably many other roasters who may have one or two Bird Friendly® options.  

One of our favorite roasters who is fully dedicated to Bird Friendly® coffees is Birds & Beans. They are the real deal, adding visibility to this critical certification and sourcing coffees only from countries with migratory bird habitats.  And the shade-grown coffee is fantastic too.

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Why You Should Be Drinking Shade-Grown Coffee

With all the reasons coffee has been in the news lately (droughts in Brazil, price fluctuations, precarious forecasts due to climate change), you’d be forgiven for not seeing any immediate link to migratory bird habitats …