Coffee and Bird Conservation?

Cup of Coffee Beans, courtesy JenK, Flickr
Did you know that the kind of coffee you drink affects birds, trees, and people halfway across the world? I was thinking about that when I sipped my morning "cup of joe," warm in my house and watching the birds in my backyard. Whenever possible, I try to buy shade-grown coffee instead of the more commonly commercially-produced sun-grown coffee. Here’s why:

Traditional coffee trees needed taller plants to shade their leaves from the sun’s blistering heat. Coffee farmers would grow their coffee trees under rainforest trees and let the over story trees shade their crops. However, when sun-resistant hybrids were produced, the farmers that bought them started clearing the rainforest in order to build coffee tree plantations. Many people thought these new hybrids would help poorer farmers. After all, they were smaller and easier to harvest than traditional coffee trees, and they would produce almost twice as many coffee beans per crop to boot! And truth be told, the new trees DID increase total profits and helped establish coffee as the number one imported food good in the world; as such, most coffee producers have switched over to sun-grown coffee. However, these new trees affected their environment in ways that scientists and coffee growers did not foresee.

Unlike traditional coffee trees, sun-grown coffee trees require pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in order to grow. This coupled with the coffee trees’ relatively shallow tree root structures, greatly increased erosion and toxic run-off, which destroyed the soil and the natural habitat of local animals. In fact, sun-grown coffee plants can only produce beans for a few years before the ground becomes too eroded to sustain the trees. Farmers are then forced to burn down even more land in order to expand their coffee plantations!

Traditional coffee trees, on the other hand, maintain  local environments, rather than destroying them. Shade-grown trees require little to no pesticides or fertilizers:  insectivorous creatures help control harmful insects while the decaying leaves of rainforest trees provided natural fertilizer. Shade-grown coffee trees provide natural habitat for local animals, including beneficial animals like seed-eating birds and fruit-eating bats. For example, shade-grown coffee plantations in Mexico can support over 100 bird species, while sun-grown coffee plantations can only support around 6-12 species. Shade-grown coffee also promotes biodiversity in native tree species and can be a key part of tropical forest regeneration. Additionally, because shade-grown coffee takes longer to ripen and has more natural sugars, it usually has a better, more flavorful taste than sun-grown coffee.  YUM!

If you are interested in buying shade-grown coffee, watch your labels! Some coffee companies scatter trees from one species across their fields; this technically makes their coffee “shade grown” but does not help promote biodiversity, inhibit water erosion or reduce pesticide use. Because of tricks like this, it can be a frustrating process finding a legitimately shade-grown bag of coffee. However, with determination and a little research, you can find a good, trustworthy brand to brew. Here are a few tips to help you:
  • The Smithsonian Institute’s Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird Friendly ®” seal of approval is one of the few labels you can trust.
  • Look for coffee brands that say they were rustic or traditional shade-grown. To find out more about the “shades of shade-grown coffee” check out this link
  • Check out the brand Birds & Beans at its website at The Lab of Ornithology buys this brand of coffee for the staff breakroom because of its commitment to shade-grown coffee.
A few activities for you and your family to consider:
  1. Research shade-grown coffee.  Share what you learn (via the comments section of this post)!  If you drink coffee, please consider buying shade grown!  A few links to get you started:
  2. Learn about other bird conservation issues that you might impact (postitively and negatively) without even knowing it!  For example, can "buying local" or choosing organic food make a difference?  How? Determine as a family whether there are one or two small commitments that you'd like to make to help protect the environment (turning of lights, walking more, etc.)   Let BirdSleuth know what you've accomplished!
  3. Play an online migration game from Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.  The Wood Thrush is a bird whose habitat includes shade-grown coffee plantations!
  4. Find out where (geographically) your food comes from.  At dinner tonight, which countries are represented on your plate?
One thing that working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has taught me:  we really are all connected on this beautiful planet.  We appreciate your family's interest in birds and conservation!


Special thanks to Caleb Arellano, Cornell University biology major, for assistance with background research and writing this post.

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