What does it mean?
Bird Friendly® coffee is a trademark for coffee grown on family farms in Latin America. These farms provide beneficial habitats for birds. Rather than being grown on farms cleared of vegetation, bird friendly coffees are planted under a canopy of trees that provide shelter, food, and homes local and migratory birds must have to survive.
However, making a selection is not always easy. Why do some coffees command premium prices while others don't? The impacts of your choices are significant. Last year, the world consumed approximately 21 billion pounds of coffee grown on 27 million acres throughout the tropics.
Coffee does have a lower impact on birds than most other commodities from the tropics, such as palm oil. That's positive news for eco-conscious java lovers.
Not all coffee farms are alike
Agroforest is the term for a farm that resembles a forest. These forests contain a more diverse mix of trees and coffee shrubs than typical monoculture farms with little or no natural canopy cover.
Choosing coffee that’s good for birds and other wildlife sounds simple enough. It isn't. There are several important considerations.
If possible, buy coffee that is certified as shade-grown. Bags are stamped with seals like Rainforest Alliance Certified or Bird Friendly. Both of these certifications require farmers to maintain or restore some level of forest canopy and prohibits use of pesticides that kill bird prey.
The Bird Friendly certification was developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and is slightly more stringent. However, both seals mean the company maintains some amount of natural habitat on and around the coffee farm. Rainforest Alliance certifies products ranging from coffee to office supplies by ensuring any existing natural habitat is conserved after a farm becomes certified.
(The Rainforest Alliance certification seal on a cup of coffee; RachelY38, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Certified shade-grown coffees make up only a small portion of the global market, approximately 5.6% for Rainforest Alliance and about 1% for Bird Friendly. Sustainable coffees often display a seal certifying them as organic. Bird Friendly has to be both organic and shade grown. If you can only find organic, it's still a better option. While organic has no requirement for canopy cover, it does ban the use of synthetic pesticides that kill insects, such as the coffee berry borer and leaf miner. Pesticides indirectly harm birds by diminishing their food sources; for example, some birds eat the larvae of the coffee borer.
The photo above shows a coffee plantation in Guatemala. This is typical of the traditional shade coffee plantation where only some or none of the tree canopy has been removed and coffee planted below it.
Every culture, including that of coffee aficionados, has its own lingo. Without a sustainability seal, it’s not as easy to tell if your coffee comes from a bird-safe farm. In that case, look for the designation relationship coffee. Small roasters in the U.S. establish ties with small coffee communities in the tropics to develop their products. These communities produce the majority of sustainably-grown beans.
Check the package to see where the company sourced the coffee. It may tell you the communities or farms where they buy their product. Bird conservation depends on supporting the farmers who grow their coffee responsibly.
Arabica and robusta
A bag of your favorite brew might display the words "100% Arabica Coffee", which means the beans come from the more popular arabica species. Higher quality with a sweeter flavor, it has garnered almost 60% of the market. Robusta, often used to make instant coffee, is considered lower quality.
If you can find little or nothing about the farm where the coffee was grown, choose arabica. This species is more commonly grown under at least partial shade, whereas robusta is more sun and heat tolerant. It is typically grown in more intensively-managed areas with little canopy cover, which is a worse environment for most wildlife. However, if robusta is shade grown, new research shows it can support an almost equally diverse bird population.
Country of origin
This is a much less reliable method for selecting sustainably grown coffee. For example, in Brazil and Vietnam, the two largest global producers, the overwhelming majority of coffee is grown under full sun. These farms don't look the least bit like forests. But in India, Ecuador, and Peru, the majority of coffee is grown under a shade canopy. Canopy cover is better for birds. Keep in mind that growing conditions can change in an instant due to a country's economic conditions or politics.
Smallholder farmers produce 60% of the world’s coffee
If you want to help birds, select coffee that's certified sustainable or comes from a smallholder relationship roaster. Even better, choose brews that are both. For those who like to grab your java to go, try coffee bars or major retailers that serve certified brews.
(Devon Avery on Unsplash)
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