Coffee for the Planet! How Your Coffee Affects Life on Earth

How do you choose a good cup of coffee??
Not just tasty good, but good for the planet? I used to think that organic Arabica beans were shade-grown and ecosystem friendly. I now know it’s not so simple. It’s clear though that our coffee choices have a direct impact on the planet! Here’s a brief primer on coffee and how our choices can either contribute to deforestation or support habitat creation and preservation:

🌳 Coffee grows in tropical and subtropical climates from sea level up to about 6300 feet. The two major types of coffee are Robusta (Coffea canephora) and Arabica (Coffea arabica). Robusta plants have greater yields per hectare, grow at lower elevations, and require hotter temperatures and more moisture compared to Arabica plants. Robusta beans contain almost twice as much caffeine and a lower lipid and sugar content than Arabica beans. These chemical differences lead to strong differences in taste. Robusta tends to be bitter, harsh and unflavorful and is often used for instant or “cheaper” coffee. Arabica has a wide diversity of flavors, is sweeter and milder than Robusta, and is generally considered to be higher quality.

bird-friendly coffee, coffee, migratory birds, deforestation, shade-grown

Map of coffee-growing regions. Dark green areas show where Robusta is grown; yellow indicates areas where Arabica is grown, and areas shaded light green grow both varieties. Creative Commons.

Coffee has traditionally been grown in shade,
under a canopy of native forest trees (Philpott et al., 2008).

bird-friendly coffee, coffee, migratory birds, deforestation, shade-grown

Coffee plantation in Araku Valley, India. Photo by Pinakpani, Creative Commons.

🌳 Given the extensive tropical deforestation that has occurred, shade coffee farms provide critical habitat for pollinators and resident and migrating birds. They also provide soil and water conservation and carbon storage benefits that were once provided by wild forests (Jha et al. 2014).

🌳 Under pressure to increase productivity, many shade farms have been deforested and converted to full-sun monocultures (Jha et al. 2014). This intensification of coffee crops for short-term increases in yield has drastic consequences:

bird-friendly coffee, coffee, migratory birds, deforestation, shade-grown

Robusta coffee plantation, Timbuí, Brazil, by Denis Rizzoli

🔥 Some of the last remaining habitat for birds and other species is lost, along with ecosystem functions we ultimately can’t live without (Bertrand et al. 2011).

🔥 Full-sun coffee plantations require more chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Monocultures don’t support species webs to keep diseases and pests under control. In shade coffee farms, birds eat coffee pests (Wenny et al. 2011), and shade trees “fix” nitrogen, which provides natural fertilizer.

What can an Earth-loving coffee drinker do?

🌳 Our choice in coffee has a DIRECT and POWERFUL effect on the planet. Fortunately, there’s an option that directly supports shade-grown, organic, ecosystem and community-supporting coffee farms: Certified Bird-Friendly coffee!

🌳 BIRD-FRIENDLY COFFEE CERTIFICATION was developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Purchasing Bird-Friendly coffee ensures your coffee was organically produced in a forested ecosystem. Farmers obtain better prices for growing certified Bird-Friendly coffee, and their farms support diverse income sources.

bird-friendly coffee, coffee, migratory birds, deforestation, shade-grown

bird-friendly coffee, coffee, migratory birds, deforestation, shade-grown

Where can you find Bird-Friendly coffee?

🌳 Some roasters offer bird-friendly coffee, but if you can’t find it locally, you can buy it on line. The prices are not much higher than what you might pay for organic or Fair-Trade coffee.

The limitations of Arabica, Organic, and Fair-Trade

🌳 Although arabica plants are adapted to grow in shade, hybrids have been developed to grow in full sun. Given the trend in converting shade farms to full sun, uncertified beans are likely to have been grown in an unforested plantation. Plants grown in full sun are more susceptible to disease (Toniutti et al. 2017), so they’re treated with chemicals unless they’re certified organic.

🌳 Organic coffee is more planet-friendly than non-organic, but organic coffee can be grown in full sun and thus  contribute to deforestation.

🌳 Fair-Trade-certified coffee is not necessarily organic or shade grown. There are contrasting views on how well Fair-Trade works for growers and the environment. There have been strong critiques that the way Fair Trade is implemented for coffee placates ethical consumers while mostly benefiting large corporations.

What about Rainforest Alliance Certification?

🌳 It sounds ethical and sustainable, but is Rainforest Alliance Certification as good as it sounds? Unfortunately, the shade requirements for Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee were weakened in the most recent standards. The current Rainforest Alliance Sustainable Agriculture Standard requires only 20% shade, and that shaded area can consist of “Off-site compensation areas located outside of the farm.” In addition, coffee only needs to contain 30% Rainforest Alliance Certified beans in order to carry the label. bird-friendly coffee, coffee, migratory birds, deforestation, shade-grownA disclaimer must be placed below the logo stating the % of certified beans, but consumers need to know to read the fine print. Coffee with the Rainforest Alliance seal can contain up to 70% non-certified coffee.

🌳 Despite these limitations, Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee is a better choice than coffee without any certifications.

With coffee, as with so many things, cheap prices come at a cost.
We might not see it today, as we sip our coffee in comfort. But the communities poisoned by pesticides and deprived of forests pay it daily. The birds who arrive at their tropical destinations after surviving migration pay when their trees and food sources are gone. Our choice in coffee beans has a direct impact on tropical ecosystems, and thus on the whole planet. We are all impacted by climate change and biodiversity loss.

The takeaway: Bird-Friendly Coffee is the way to go!

🌳 Those of us who care and who have the resources to choose owe it to ourselves and to the planet to make conscious choices about what we consume. Coffee is one product where our choices can have a strong positive or negative impact! I recently ordered coffee from Birds and Beans, and I’m looking forward to giving some away to help spread the word about this simple way we can help the planet. What a great gift!

🌳 For more on Bird-Friendly coffee, here’s a short video:

1 Comment

  • Ed Posted August 6, 2018 11:06 am

    Thank you for doing the research and sharing this important information on a product that so many of us drink everyday. I will support the bird-friendly certification to help ensure the longevity of forested, organic ecosystems!

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