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
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.
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.
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,