Would You Pay More for Your Coffee If It Helped Birds?

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 6, 2015 23
Fifty-four percent of adult Americans drink coffee every day and, on average, they pay $3.28 for a coffee drink. Bird friendly coffee, however, is still difficult to find. ©Suzanne Nilsson, flickr

Fifty-four percent of adult Americans drink coffee every day. On average, they pay $3.28 for a coffee drink. Bird-friendly coffee, however, is still difficult to find. ©Suzanne Nilsson, flickr

Coffee. In my opinion—other than clean, pure water—it just may be the best drink on Earth. That’s why I celebrated last Thursday, October 1, the first official International Coffee Day, with several cups of my favorite brew.

The International Coffee Organization, established in 1963 in collaboration with the United Nations to improve cooperation between nations that consume, distribute and produce coffee, created International Coffee Day as a way to celebrate this storied drink and promote the use of fair-trade coffee.

While the fair-trade part—which ensures that coffee farmworkers get paid fairly for their labor—of coffee consumption is important, there’s another facet to the drink’s production that those of us who strive to choose options that have the least detrimental effect on the environment need to consider: where our coffee is grown.

As with other favorite pleasures in our lives—such as down comforters and fleece jackets—coffee, too, has a dark side when it comes to the environment. But unlike those other two items, coffee is something most of us purchase, or at the very least ingest, every day. And if the more expensive cup or bag is better for wildlife and plant species than cheaper versions, are we willing to pay for it?

Shade- vs. sun-grown coffee

Coffee’s heritage goes back to ancient forests on the Ethiopian plateau. ©Javier Marmol, flickr

The history of coffee goes back to ancient forests on the Ethiopian plateau. ©Javier Marmol, flickr

In the 1700s, the Dutch introduced coffee to the New World as a forest-floor crop, grown under a dense, native canopy. Although some of the understory had to be cleared for the crops, a rich web of plant and animal life remained. Such shade-grown coffee plantations provided corridors for migrating birds to move between forest fragments, attracted pollinators such as bees and bats, and provided ecosystem services, such as filtering water and air, stabilizing soil during heavy rains and storing carbon.

Today, some coffee farms still use this traditional method, which lessens the need for artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Decaying leaf litter naturally recycles nutrients to feed the coffee plants, and forest birds eat insect pests. Forest-grown coffee is picked by hand rather than by machine, allowing people to choose only the ripe arabica coffee berries.

However, in modern times, sun-tolerant varieties of coffee that can be grown in the open (such as robusta, a lower-quality coffee than arabica) and that tend to have higher yields than shade-grown coffee have been introduced. In order to grow these crops, forests must be cut down, and pesticides and fertilizers employed. The result is a loss of plant and animal biodiversity and soil depletion that leaves communities more vulnerable to flooding and landslides. Because of sun-grown coffee’s higher short-term yields and lower labor costs (and thus, bigger profits), it has come to dominate the landscape in some places. In Colombia, for example, about 70 percent of the permanent cropland planted in coffee has been converted to sun-grown operations.

By the end of the 18th century, coffee had become one of the world’s most profitable export crops. ©Julian Rotela Rosow, flickr

By the end of the 18th century, coffee had become one of the world’s most profitable export crops. ©Julian Rotela Rosow, flickr

A recent study, titled Shade Coffee: Update on a Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity, published in the journal BioScience on April 16, 2014, stated that while the total global production of shade-grown coffee has increased since 1996, the area of land used for nonshade coffee has increased at a much faster rate, resulting in shade-grown coffee falling from 43 percent of total cultivated area to 24 percent.

This trend to grow coffee in the sun rather than the shade sacrifices not only coffee’s richness and taste. Overall, up to 97 percent fewer bird species are found in full-sun plantations when compared to shade-grown. According to Professor of Biology Bridget Stutchbury of Toronto’s York University, shade-coffee farms provide critical habitat for neotropical migrant songbirds, such as Baltimore orioles and scarlet tanagers. At least 42 migratory songbird species overwinter in heavily-shaded coffee plantations, and 22 of them are in population decline.

Considering coffee costs

If you want to ensure that your coffee is good for the planet, it’s best to buy beans that have been certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center—noted by a “bird-friendly” stamp on the package—or by the Rainforest Alliance. While “organic” and “fair-trade” designations are good, they don’t specifically address whether the coffee is shade grown. For a list of what various coffee certifications mean, click here.

Shade-grown coffee plantations provide habitat for birds and require less fertilizer and pesticides. ©Michael Allen Smith, flickr

Shade-grown coffee plantations provide habitat for birds and require less fertilizer and pesticides. ©Michael Allen Smith, flickr

Unfortunately, bird-friendly certified coffee is hard to find in stores and in coffee shops. First, the standards for certification are so rigorous that only a small percentage of coffee farms qualify. Secondly, coffee sellers don’t always advertise that their coffee is bird friendly. In fact, only about 10 percent of coffee from bird-friendly certified farms carries the stamp on the package. Starbucks and Whole Foods, for example, sell some bird-friendly coffee, but they see no need to make room on their packaging for a separate label appealing to a relatively small—and silent—minority.

More than half of all Americans over the age of 18 drink coffee every day and more than 60 million of us say we watch birds. Given those statistics, if every coffee-drinking birder in the U.S. would commit to purchasing only bird-friendly coffee, the market would grow a thousandfold.

Are you willing to pay a higher price for your coffee if it ensures that growers on heavily-shaded plantations can continue to compete with sun-grown operations?

It’s certainly something to ponder, over a cup of coffee.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. Dennis Sizemore April 16, 2016 at 3:03 pm - Reply

    Yes I would!

  2. Alexander Wolf November 7, 2015 at 5:21 pm - Reply

    Well, the time has come for me to stock up on my morning coffee. I love the idea of putting your money where your mouth is in terms of conservation. But for someone who drinks coffee on a daily basis, the bird-friendly coffees I’m finding online (Audubon or Smithsonian-endorsed, Ground for Change, and Thanksgiving coffee) are all more than double the Folgers I have been buying, and living in a rural area my options are limited to what’s online. That’s some serious sticker shock! For someone on a limited budget who drinks coffee regularly that’s asking a lot (I may cave, but I’m thinking of the general coffee-buying public here). Anyone have any more affordable options? It will be an uphill battle to get most folks to take the moral high ground at >200% their current cost.

    In response to the comments on an optics tax, I agree whole-heartedly that they should be taxed. I’d be glad to pay that amount, because even though it could be a lot out of pocket in one hit, I don’t buy optics very often. Good optics should last most people a least a decade, as opposed to ammo and fishing tackle which are essentially disposal and generally purchased on a regular (at least annual) basis. So I’m afraid the optics tax won’t produce nearly the revenue that ammo and tackle do. But it would be a good start.

  3. Woodson Godfrey October 24, 2015 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Like most vices and addictions, the price rarely curbs consumption. If good can be made of the increase, why not? I can always add chicory as an extender.

  4. Anubhav Kaul October 17, 2015 at 4:54 pm - Reply

    There’s a positive-feedback loop between consumers Palate and how a Food is Farmed-Processed-Marketed and Sold.

    A case in point could be our Honey consumption; ideally no two- tumbler of natural honey should taste the same and they don’t… But majority of consumers consume honey for its Sugar-rush which further defines how Honey is Made!
    Similarly a typical plantation grown coffee’s market is the consumer who consumes coffee as calorie intense stimulant expecting a ‘Predictable-Treat’; Predictability of the experience is Paramount!
    On the other hand, folks who consume coffee and other similar drug-foods as an indulgence (Frequency and repetitiveness of consumption being the differentiator) don’t mind paying a premium, but majority consume it for a Kick and only bother about its origin superficially!!
    Nevertheless, such labeling will do a great job in bringing together like-Minded consumers and assure investors and producers of a dedicated-market and give them confidence to pursue it.

  5. Joelle Gehring October 16, 2015 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    Yes, I do. Not always easy to find in standard grocery stores but I make the effort to find it.

  6. Bill Hogseth October 15, 2015 at 6:50 am - Reply

    Yes, I do. It’s a no brainer to me; shade coffee usually tastes better, is grown on family farms so its more beneficial to local economies, and its well documented that it provides quality habitat.

    A more interesting question, if I may, is whether or not a majority of birders would be willing to voluntarily support a tax on optics (binoculars and scopes) that funded conservation efforts. An 11% tax on optics would give birders nearly equal standing as hunters in making a (measurable) contribution to conservation.

  7. Annika Andersson October 15, 2015 at 6:48 am - Reply

    Y’all may like to check out Thanksgiving Coffee Company for shade grown fair trade grounds, delivered right to your door.


  8. Sara Marriott October 14, 2015 at 4:39 pm - Reply

    What about shade grown chocolate?! Same benefits. It is not JUST about the birds! It’s about the health of the rainforest which in turn helps the whole ecosystem! My team is working on shade grown chocolate education for farmers.

  9. Annika Andersson October 14, 2015 at 5:57 am - Reply


  10. Nicholas Chitulang'oma October 13, 2015 at 7:43 am - Reply

    Definitely I would. It didn’t click my mind.

  11. Angie Wierzbicki October 13, 2015 at 7:43 am - Reply

    I consider myself more versed on issues such as this than the average American, and I had no idea. Thank you for sharing! I will try to pay better attention in the future when I purchase coffee.

  12. Grant Sizemore October 13, 2015 at 7:28 am - Reply

    Birds and Beans is a Smithsonian-certified Bird-friendly coffee. I also hear it’s pretty good. I don’t drink coffee though.

  13. Cassidy Loring Brush October 13, 2015 at 7:28 am - Reply

    I recommend Grounds For Change. Amazing coffee with sustainable practices.

  14. Donald Houston October 12, 2015 at 4:41 pm - Reply

    If it would help in any way, Yes.

  15. Erica Wells October 12, 2015 at 7:54 am - Reply

    Thanks, Candice, a very interesting item. I shall be scrutinizing coffee labels even more closely now.

  16. Wendy Brophy October 11, 2015 at 2:16 pm - Reply

    I have been committed to buying Shade Grown Bird Friendly (SGBF) coffee for a few years, now, since, finding out about the facts.
    Even Amazon sells it. There are many sites on the web, also. I try to go out of my way to specifically, ask for SGBF Coffee, even though I can see that there are none on the menu board. Only once, did a server offer that they sold it. I quickly tell them that coffee is naturally grown in the shade. However, the destruction of rainforest around the world are destroyed for sun grown. Then, thank them, walk away, without a purchase. I want them to know, that I choose to make a difference in my Purchasing Power!

  17. Souang Tellei October 11, 2015 at 11:10 am - Reply

    If it helps humans too, yes. 🙂

  18. Bill Shadel October 9, 2015 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    Richard – I can’t recall the cost difference. It’s something I started doing nearly 15 years ago. I think organic, fair-trade, shade-grown is around 12-13 USD per pound. I’m sure something like Maxwell house is well under 10 per pound. I think Starbucks is closer to the price of the former even though it carries no such claims.

  19. Diego Zárrate October 9, 2015 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    I do. But sadly sometimes the wildlife-friendly certifications are not enought to increase a product final price. It´s important to join this product initiative with goverment policies, in a way that also part of the cost of production could be reduced by taxes reduction. There should be joint initiatives to ensure that farmers can convert their farms into healthier habitat for several species not attached only to the final consumer desicion.

  20. Stephan Michaels October 9, 2015 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    Yes. If it was clear that providing habitat was the trade-off.

  21. John Millar FLS October 7, 2015 at 5:23 am - Reply

    Yes, certainly. And pressure needs putting on the well known brands to do more for the environment.

  22. Richard Budd October 7, 2015 at 5:21 am - Reply

    I don’t know anything much about growing coffee, but the cost of the beans in a cup of starbucks is a very small percentage of what you pay and I doubt that you’d notice the extra cost; it might be different for the cost of coffee made at home though. Is there much of a difference Bill?

    I didn’t know about this but I will look out for it.

  23. Bill Shadel October 6, 2015 at 11:16 am - Reply

    I already do. And I’m surprised how most conservationists I know don’t care about this issue.

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