Next time you're grocery shopping, try finding a bag of "environmentally friendly" coffee. But don't be fooled by deceptive packaging. Just because a bag has an image of a bird on it doesn't mean it's "green."
Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee every day. One reason is that it contains caffeine, the world's safest and most addictive stimulant. Coffee-drinking birders and conservationists can make a difference by purchasing coffee that is certified organic and bird-friendly. Unfortunately these certifications can be confusing.
The Smithsonian Institution's Migratory Bird Center's certification process is the gold standard. Begun in 1995 and based on years of scientific research, SMBC developed strict criteria for grading shade coffee farms. Independent third-party inspectors evaluate coffee farms. Only those that meet SMBC standards and are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are eligible for "bird-friendly" certification. Roasters that use bird-friendly beans pay a per-pound royalty to SMBC to support research and conservation.
One such research study that is just getting underway is a reforestation project in Colombia where a landowner, who also happens to be a biologist, is requesting help in converting pastureland into a shade coffee farm.
The vast majority of coffee on grocery shelves is not bird-friendly. It's grown under full sun with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It's bad for farmers and birds, and sun coffee's flavor is often bitter.
In nature, however, coffee is an understory tree. It loves shade, where it grows slowly. Its beans are rich and mellow. Shade coffee farms also can produce a variety of other crops such as fruits, firewood, flowers, lumber and medicines from the canopy trees. And the canopy supports a rich diversity of birds (more than 150 species), insects, amphibians, and other wildlife. Some birding tour operators are even beginning to include stops at coffee plantations.
The benefits of shade coffee are many. It's safer for farmers to grow because it requires no chemicals. Farmers get a better price for shade-grown coffee. It can generate income from a variety of non-coffee products from the canopy trees. It minimizes soil erosion. It promotes biodiversity. And it's great for birds.
The tradeoff is price. Bird-friendly coffee costs more than grocery store blends. But really, it's just a few pennies more per cup. And it tastes better.
I speak from experience. When I was a boy, my grandmother often served me coffee, heavy with cream and sugar. Then she added cookies to dunk in the coffee. I thought it was the best drink ever.
In college, I realized I'd been duped. Cafeteria coffee was a nasty, bitter beverage compared to what I had been raised on.
Fast forward 30 years. Earlier this year I bought my wife, a real coffee drinker, a bird-friendly blend. She loved it and insisted I try it. Even black, the taste was mild and not at all bitter. And I knew that by buying bird-friendly coffee, farmers were getting a fair price, birds and the environment were benefiting, and I was getting a pleasant wake-up call.