If there’s one thing that competes with my love of birds (besides my family, of course), it’s my love of coffee. I can’t get through the day without at least two or three cups. And I’m not alone. Canada is one of the world’s top 10 coffee-guzzling countries, consuming an average 14 pounds of coffee beans per person every year.
Our collective coffee habit has a big impact on the environment. More than 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared in Central America alone to make way for coffee plantations. This massive deforestation is not only detrimental to the wildlife that lives there year round, but it destroys important wintering habitat for migratory birds we see here at home. Nearly 40 percent of the birds that nest in Canada migrate to Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Coffee is also heavily sprayed with pesticides. Even if these chemicals don’t make their way into your cup, they pose a threat to farmers, ecosystems and local communities where coffee is grown. Coffee processing is responsible for yet more pollution: processing plants, usually located near coffee farms, discharge organic chemicals into nearby waterways.
A little background: coffee farming wasn’t always so ecologically destructive. Most of the world’s coffee used to come from Coffea arabica, a species native to the mountainous rainforests of Ethiopia. An evergreen shrub, Arabica traditionally grows within a forest, shaded by the tree canopy. In the ’70s, farmers were encouraged to replace shade coffee with Coffea robusta and newer hybrids that could withstand the sun. These “sun coffee” varieties were more resistant to fungus and produced higher yields. So, to meet the world’s growing coffee habit, more and more farmers started clearing native forests to grow sun coffee. Now, about three-quarters of the world’s coffee farming is sun-grown.
So how do you know where your coffee comes from or how it was grown? With so many different labels these days, from certified organic to fair trade to shade grown, trying to make a sustainable choice can be confusing. Thankfully, there is another option you can look for, one with strict standards to ensure coffee is grown sustainably and protects biodiversity: the Bird Friendly certification.
What is Bird Friendly coffee?
The program was founded in the early 1990s by ornithologists from the Migratory Bird Center, a branch of the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute in the U.S. They could see that migratory bird populations were in steep decline, largely due to habitat loss. And one of the major culprits was industrial agriculture like coffee farming, which was wiping out huge tracts of tropical forest.
Although coffee was a threat, it was also an opportunity. Unlike many other crops, coffee can be grown in the shade, keeping the forest intact. So the Smithsonian, in an effort to prevent shade coffee farms from being converted to monocultures, developed a certification for coffee farms that were shade-grown and organic. The program now has more than 5,400 participants around the world, including Mexico, Central and South America, Ethiopia, India and Thailand.
More than 60 studies over the last 25 years have shown that traditional shade-grown coffee habitat is on par with natural forest. In fact, one study of cerulean warblers—which spend their summers in Ontario and American states around the Great Lakes—found three to 14 times more birds in shade coffee plantations than primary forest.
“Bird Friendly coffee comes from farms that provide really high-quality habitat for birds and other wildlife,” says Kirstin Hill, Bird Friendly Program Manager with the Smithsonian.
Just think, the birds you love spotting in your backyard or on hikes—species like wood thrush, scarlet tanager and magnolia warbler—could be wintering in the very forest where your coffee was harvested.
How is Bird Friendly coffee different from other labels like “organic”?
Organic certification is a familiar label on coffee, and it indeed helps the environment by restricting the use of agrochemicals that are harmful to human and ecosystem health. This is critical, as pesticides are one of the causes of declining bird populations—but organic certification doesn’t address habitat loss. A certified organic coffee farm can be a sun-grown monoculture, with little habitat or biodiversity.
“[Organic certification] doesn’t look at the habitat that’s protected, and it doesn’t look at the shade that’s maintained,” says Hill.
What about so-called shade-grown coffee? Hill says “shade grown” has become a greenwashed term that has no set definition or stringent criteria attached to it. A coffee farm could have a few trees and a pocket of shade and call itself shade grown.
“Any farm could call itself shade grown and there’s no one there to verify what that actually means,” she says.
The Rainforest Alliance logo has also become a familiar sight on coffee and tea, but its meaning is fuzzy. This certification is focused on “the three pillars of sustainability: social, economic, and environmental.” But although there are some environmental criteria, there’s no requirement for products to be shade grown or organic.
Bird Friendly coffee is the most stringent certification because it is both certified organic and truly shade grown. With strict criteria and regular inspections, the Smithsonian can verify that participating farms are organic and provide habitat for birds and wildlife.
“If you’re looking for shade grown and you want to be certain, the best thing you can do is to look for that Bird Friendly logo,” says Hill.
How do coffee farms become Bird Friendly?
To be certified Bird Friendly, a coffee farm must first be certified organic—typically a multi-year process.
“[Organic certification] is quite often the heaviest lift when it comes to becoming certified,” says Hill.
Farmers who have achieved organic certification are given a list of the Bird Friendly criteria and asked to do a self-evaluation. If the farm is on track, they are put in touch with an organic inspection agency that is trained in Bird Friendly standards. (The Smithsonian trains inspectors for free on what it means to be Bird Friendly and how to do an evaluation.)
Coupling a Bird Friendly inspection with an organic inspection is the most efficient and cost-effective way for farmers to get certified. Farmers don’t pay a fee to the Smithsonian—they just have to pay for an inspector’s additional time for the extra inspection. Once a farm passes inspection, it is given the seal of approval—the Smithsonian Bird Friendly logo.
What are the Bird Friendly standards?
Many of the Bird Friendly criteria centre around habitat, ensuring that farms mimic natural forests. First, farms are required to maintain a minimum of 10 tree and shrub species, providing different types of food (seeds, fruits, nectar, and insects) for a range of bird species.
The ecosystem of a Bird Friendly coffee farm must also be structurally diverse, meaning it has a complex “architecture” made up of different layers. Structural diversity is critical, as different bird species occupy different habitat niches. (Some species only nest or forage near the tops of the trees, whereas others spend their lives in the understory.) At least three layers should be present: the main canopy, which is at least 12 metres high, a layer of mid-sized trees, and an understory of smaller trees and shrubs. Overall, the vegetation must provide at least 40 percent shade cover, even after pruning.
Farmers are also encouraged to keep soil healthy by growing groundcover plants or covering the soil with mulch. They should also allow the accumulation of leaf litter—dead leaves, twigs and pieces of bark that have fallen to the ground. (Leaf litter is a key ingredient of healthy soil; It can also be used as nesting material and provides hiding spots for birds and other critters.)
Farmers are encouraged to maintain “vegetational buffer zones” next to rivers, streams, lakes and other areas that are susceptible to erosion. Buffers must be at least five metres wide beside streams and 10 metres wide along rivers and be composed of natural vegetation to provide habitat and protect water quality. Farmers are also encouraged to use “living fences,” such as hedgerows, to fence off roadways or other borders.
The criteria extend throughout the entire supply chain: Bird Friendly coffee must be processed and dried separately from other coffee, without the use of synthetic chemicals. The Smithsonian has licensing agreements in place at the importer and retailer levels.
“There’s no blending,” says Hill. “So you have that guarantee that the coffee you’re drinking is doing really good things for wildlife with every bean, bag or cup.”
The benefits of Bird Friendly coffee
Bird Friendly coffee isn’t just good for birds and wildlife—it’s better for the planet in so many ways.
Better for biodiversity
Since Bird Friendly coffee farms maintain tree and shrub diversity, they are more biodiverse than conventional coffee monocultures. That’s because every plant species produces its own distinct flowers, fruits, seeds or nuts—and attracts different insects. These are all important food sources, not only for birds but for wildlife of all kinds. A diverse habitat is like a buffet that suits everyone’s diets.
Researchers conducted bird surveys in different types of coffee plantations, and coffee plantations grown under a diverse tree canopy had the highest number of species. In fact, coffee farms with Bird Friendly habitat had nearly as many bird species as native forest. And they have more mammals than other types of coffee plantations.
Many of the creatures that benefit from habitat on coffee farms in turn provide important ecosystem services. Insects like bees and butterflies pollinate native plants and trees, as well as coffee plants and other agricultural crops. In fact, the abundance of honey bees has been shown to affect the abundance of coffee berries. Insect-eating birds and bats are critical for keeping pests in check. By removing habitat and disrupting the balance of predators and prey, farmers may be forced to rely more heavily on pesticides.
More climate friendly
The massive trees that form a canopy over coffee farms do more than provide habitat—they act as carbon sinks, sucking the carbon out of the atmosphere and bringing it back down into the soil.
Research shows that shade trees play an important role in carbon sequestration. Shade-grown coffee plantations in Indonesia have shown 58 percent more carbon stock in the soil and biomass than nearby sun coffee plantations. Researchers estimate that by converting even 10 percent of sun coffee systems to even scant shade cover would result in 1.6 billion tons of aboveground sequestered carbon.
More climate resilient
Bird Friendly coffee farms are more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Tree roots help to keep soil in place, preventing erosion and landslides during severe weather events. Research has shown that farms with more complex vegetation have significantly fewer landslides resulting from hurricanes.
Bird Friendly farming can also protect farms and communities from flooding, which is more common with severe weather events. With healthy riparian zones (buffers of vegetation around waterways), root systems soak up excess water and vegetation slows down stormwater runoff.
As the planet becomes warmer, farms and nearby communities are subject to more severe heat events. Shade trees offer a few extra degrees of protection, not only for crops but for the other flora and fauna that are part of that ecosystem.
Because Bird Friendly farms are protected from erosion, they maintain healthy soil. A study in Nicaragua estimated that sun-exposed coffee farms lost 2.5 times more soil than shaded farms from the same hillside. Once too much soil has been eroded, farmers are forced to cut down even more trees to start a new plantation.
The soil on a Bird Friendly coffee farm is also rich and fertile. A diverse mix of plants add nutrients back into the soil, while leaf litter adds even more nutrients and soil structure.
Better water quality
Unlike sun-grown coffee, Bird Friendly coffee doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides, which contaminate the soil and water and threaten the health of humans and wildlife. Plus the trees that are part of the coffee agroforestry system have a huge influence on the water cycle, intercepting rainfall to reduce stormwater runoff and helping the soil to filter and retain water. Sun coffee requires irrigation and causes streams to dry up, whereas shade coffee farms are able to store water and recharge aquifers .
Better farming income
Research on coffee farms in Ethiopia has shown that farmers can increase their income from coffee by participating in the specialty coffee market. And when fruit trees are used for shade, farmers can make additional money by selling fruit like bananas and mangoes. Research in Jamaica, for example, estimates that farmers could make up to US $1,500 per hectare per year from fruit trees used as shade.
Hill says the Smithsonian recently interviewed farmers in the program, and she says they are proud to be Bird Friendly farmers—not only because they are producing high quality coffee that helps support their families.
“They find a lot of meaning and a lot of value in protecting that habitat on their farm,” she says.
How does Bird Friendly coffee taste?
Besides being better for birds and the environment, Bird Friendly coffee tastes better. When coffee is grown in the shade, the coffee berries ripen slowly, resulting in a richer flavour. There are many different varieties, from various origins to roasts, with a wide range of flavour profiles—whether you want something fruity, smoky or chocolatey.
David Pritchard is the owner of Birds and Beans, a Canadian coffee roaster that specializes in Bird Friendly coffee. He’s been at it for almost 20 years, using a high-tech roaster to save a roasting profile for each type of bean. He adjusts the profile with each new crop, as growing conditions can affect the moisture content of the beans. He sells more than a dozen different roasts from various origins and ships across Canada.
“We’re constantly told by people that it’s the best coffee they’ve ever had,” he says.
How much more does Bird Friendly coffee cost?
If you are serious about coffee like me, you are probably spending around $15 or more for a 12 oz bag of organic coffee. You’ll pay a bit more for Bird Friendly coffee, about $17 for the same amount of beans. It costs more because the Smithsonian charges roasters a fee to help fund the Bird Friendly certification, as well as conservation research. So while you may balk at the price, think of it as a donation to bird conservation.
Where can I find Bird Friendly coffee?
Don’t expect to find Bird Friendly coffee at any major supermarket. Despite the certification being around since 2000, it still isn’t mainstream. But you can find it in some cafés, health food stores, specialty grocers like Whole Foods Market, and at online retailers like Well.ca. The Smithsonian also has a helpful tool that lets you search for local Bird Friendly retailers.
If you can’t find a retailer near you, you can order Bird Friendly beans online from a variety of roasters. For Canadian options, Balzac’s has a delicious roast called the Atwood Blend, and Birds and Beans has a wide variety of roasts (including an excellent espresso blend). Avia’s Bird Friendly City lets you choose your own roast and a portion of the sale price goes to Nature Canada’s Bird Friendly City program. You can also search the Smithsonian’s map for participating Bird Friendly coffee farms around the world. If you are a coffee roaster, you can find a Bird Friendly coffee importer to supply your beans.
Although it’s surprising that Bird Friendly coffee isn’t more readily available, Pritchard says that when he started Birds and Beans 20 years ago, there was virtually no Bird Friendly coffee being sold in Canada. And he’s educating more and more people about it every day in hopes that once enough people ask for it, supermarkets will become interested in supplying it. If that happens, we could see a big shift in coffee culture—and major benefits for the planet.
“The cup of coffee you’re drinking, it literally could have a direct impact on the habitat of birds.”
Some Bird Friendly beans to try
Avia Coffee: $17/12 oz, $42.25/35 oz. Different roasts support different bird conservation charities like FLAP Canada and Nature Canada
Correction: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the Bird Friendly program works with 5,400 producers, not 5,100, and that the certification was officially launched in 2000, not the 1990s.