COMMENTARY BY DR. DAVE SAMUEL
Around 20 years ago, we started to hear a lot about “bird friendly” coffee.
What precipitated this was the knowledge that most shade-grown coffee systems were being converted to full-sun plantations because it increased coffee yields. For example, from 1970 to 1990 half of the coffee plantations in Latin America switched from shade plantations to low-shade plantations.
It happened everywhere. Sixty percent of Colombia plantations switched. Costa Rica, Guatemala and others switched. One study showed that in 1996, 43% of the world’s coffee came from shade plantations, but that dropped to 24% by 2010.
What’s the big deal you ask? Why should coffee production favor shade? First, shade coffee tastes better. The beans ripen slower because it’s an understory crop beneath mature trees. But the big reason is the environment.
Sun plantations use lots of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, while shade coffee comes from very diverse ecosystems. Diverse ecosystems are much better for all wildlife, insects, plants and soils than monoculture.
Do more birds live and nest in that old, unmowed field across the street from your house, or in your mowed lawn? Same with coffee production.
This shift led to efforts to preserve shade coffee production, so various environmentally focused certification programs were started.
Probably the most notable certification program was the Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee one, started in 1996. The idea was to create more sustainable production of shade coffee. Another well-known certification program is called Fair Trade.
The idea was that plantations would do what was required to produce shade coffee and in so doing, benefit the environment, especially birds. The problem is that these certification programs are voluntary.
Unless there is a market demand for shade coffee, plantations will continue to move to produce sun coffee. Such a demand must come from consumers.
You would think that bird watchers who drink coffee would be good examples of consumers who buy shade coffee. There are 45 million bird watchers in the country and millions of them are what might be called “hard core” bird watchers.
What do they think about shade coffee? We didn’t know until 2016, when an online survey was conducted of the 912 coffee drinking members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Now these are hard core bird watchers.
How familiar were they of shade coffee problems and how willing to purchase certified shade coffee were they? Half of them said they considered bird habitat when purchasing coffee and 38 percent had heard of the Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification.
Even though half said they considered birds when buying coffee, only 9% purchased bird friendly coffee. Interestingly the higher educated bird watchers were less likely to consider birds when purchasing coffee compared to older bird watchers and female bird watchers.
So for this group of surveyed bird watchers, the problems were awareness and lack of interest to purchase. However, there is one other problem.
Where do you buy Smithsonian Bird Friendly certified coffee? I spent a lot of time on the internet, googling such questions as, “do major supermarkets carry bird friendly coffee,” “is Folgers bird friendly coffee,” “does Starbucks sell bird friendly coffee,” “what coffee brands are bird friendly”?
The answers I got were a mixed bag, but the general consensus is that bird friendly coffee is hard to find in stores and most coffee shops. For example, in answer to the question “does Starbucks sell bird friendly coffee,” the answer most often listed was they sell “some”.
One source said that 8% of their purchased coffee beans were from Fair Trade certified plantations. I’m not sure just what that means.
The bottom line is that finding such coffee is not easy, but if you want bird friendly coffee, you can find various specialty coffee brands that are bird friendly on the internet.
My thoughts are the cost is a bit higher than what you pay in major grocery stores, but if you are a bird lover, that difference probably isn’t a deterrent.
How will the market change to favor bird friendly coffee?
The drive to change that market, to get it into grocery stores, will have to start with bird watchers. Millions of them.
You remember when the push to get organic foods into grocery stores started? Organic food was hard to find, but once demand started, purchasing such food went through the roof. That same translation to action has to happen with bird friendly shade coffee. Actions of individuals matter.