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One coffee routine is sabotaging efforts to save birds

Time to put your conservation where your mouth is — literally.

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Coffee farming has taken a turn for unsustainable in recent decades, putting migratory birds and their native ecosystem at risk. But conservation institutions, including the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center, have a plan to turn this problem into a solution thanks to something called bird-friendly coffee.

Since 1970, North America has seen a loss of 3 billion migratory birds — roughly a 30 percent loss of total breeding birds — many of whom call coffee-growing regions of the world like Latin America home.

This stark reality is juxtaposed against a more recent, lighter trend: a love of birds. During the pandemic, interest in birdwatching — a conveniently socially distant and outdoor activity — has soared to new heights, with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology reporting a new world record number of birders participating in their global bird-spotting event. Animal supply stores are also citing increased birdseed sales from 2019.

But for all the quiet hours spent watching birds through binoculars or carefully crafting urban bird condos for the neighborhood songbirds, a simple daily action taken by even the most dedicated birders may make it all moot: their coffee order.

Check, please is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.

Is coffee environmentally friendly?

Ruth Bennett is a research ecologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Migratory Bird Center and works on the center’s Bird Friendly Certification Program.

She tells Inverse that while the substantial loss of migratory birds can’t be pinned entirely on agricultural practices, the transformation over the same time frame of coffee farming practices has led to substantial habitat loss for these same migratory birds, including Cerulean and Yellow Warblers, and Cedar Waxwings.

North America has lost 3 billion migratory birds since the 1970s, and the conversation of shaded coffee farms into sun farms may have played a role.

Smithsonian Institution

Prior to 1970, coffee was traditionally “shade-grown,” meaning the coffee plants were grown beneath the canopy of diverse, native trees as part of a larger ecosystem that supported biodiversity of both insects and migratory birds, as well as soil health.

See also: Stop killing millions of birds with one simple action this spring

But despite the natural benefits of growing coffee this way, many farms across the world have instead turned toward full-sun farms in an effort to increase coffee yields. In addition to disrupting the natural ecosystem surrounding these farms, sun-grown coffee farms also often use more pesticides and fertilizers than shade-grown farms, which can create runoff and pollution of surrounding water and soil.

By 2010, only an estimated 24 percent of the world’s coffee was still shade-grown.

This is bad news for the migratory birds and insects who call these farms home. It can also have upstream impacts on the ecosystem in North America where these birds fly to and from, Bennett says. Without a place to rest or native insects to enjoy, these birds are often not catching their flights back North.

Without native trees to return home to, migratory birds cannot properly fuel themselves for the return flight North.

Smithsonian Institution

What is bird-friendly coffee?

While the situation may look dire for our feathered friends, Bennett says there’s still a chance to turn it around: enter, bird-friendly coffee.

The idea behind bird-friendly coffee is to promote farming practices at coffee farms that not only prioritize shade-growing practices but go a step further — ensuring the farms prioritize diverse, native tree coverage, as opposed to single-species canopies that would contribute less to the area's biodiversity.

“What our program does [is] identify where [bird-friendly] habitat currently exists and try to protect that and certify it so that it doesn't get converted into some coffee farm, versus trying to find sun coffee farms and build their habitat back up the bird-friendly standards,” Bennett explains. She also says that Bird Friendly does not certify farms that have undergone any forest conversion (e.g. deforested any existing natural areas) within the last ten years.

Right now, Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly certification program and Rainforest Alliance’s are the only two to require strict standards of protection for migratory birds on these farms. In order to be granted a three-year Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification, Bennett says that farms must be:

  • Organic
  • Have limited or zero use of chemical pesticides
  • Include at least 11 different tree species across two to four hectares of land

What does bird-friendly coffee taste like?

Because the taste of coffee is so subjective, Bennett says it can be difficult to scientifically summarize what the taste difference is between bird-friendly coffee and coffee grown using sun farms. That said, Bennett says their roasting partners do say that Bird Friendly coffee tends to have a sweeter taste and better aroma than other coffee beans.

To date, the Bird Friendly Coffee program works with 58 farms across Latin America, Ethiopia, India, and Thailand that meet these credentials. The certified farms pay a royalty to the Smithsonian that goes back into to program itself to fund more research into the ways coffee farms can support migratory birds.

But actually promoting Bird Friendly coffee with consumers is easier said than done, says Bennett.

How popular is bird-friendly coffee?

This is something Ashley Dayer knows first hand. She’s an assistant professor of human dimensions in the department of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech and co-author of a new study published this March in the journal People and Nature. She investigates just how much bird watchers know about bird-friendly coffee certifications.

Bird-friendly coffee certifications could be huge for promoting conservation of migratory birds natural habitats — but spreading the word is easier said than done.

Smithsonian Institution

After surveying a group of just over 900 self-proclaimed coffee drinkers and bird watchers, Dayer tells Inverse it became clear that knowledge about this coffee was barely trickling into the birding community — let alone the public at large.

“Surprisingly, they were [largely] unaware,” Dayer says.

“About half of participants said that they consider bird habitat when they purchase, coffee, but then when we talked specifically about the Bird Friendly certification, only 38 percent of them were familiar with that certification, and then only 9 percent of them reported that they're purchasing it.”

This was pretty surprising to Dayer — not only because bird watchers are generally known to display more pro-environmental behavior, but because their survey participants were also paying members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They had already demonstrated an interest in putting money towards conservation.

But part of the problem facing bird-friendly coffee certifications, Dayer says, is that the coffee aisle is already inundated with “greenwashed” labels that may claim sustainable practice or environmental friendliness as a selling point — without substantiated claims.

Where can you buy bird-friendly coffee?

Greenwashing refers to claims that products are environmentally friendly when they’re actually not. The problem becomes more complex through the inclusion of legitimate labels promoting organic or Fair Trade coffee — that may look like the greenwashed labels.

While both labels address equally pressing concerns, the net effect can be that consumers are struck by decision paralysis and simply choose a coffee they’re already familiar with instead of trying something new.

And because awareness is relatively low, Bennett says prices are kept high compared to standard grocery store coffee (averaging about $13 per bag directly from the roaster’s websites) and the beans can be difficult to find in-person outside of specialty or high-end grocery stores. However, they can be ordered online or tracked down in person on the program’s website.

“Our number one problem with certifying all of this new farmland is that if we don’t have consumer demand for that coffee, the farm can become certified but they won't achieve a price premium because there's no market for it,” says Bennett.

Ultimately, Dayer says, word-of-mouth will go a long way in helping coffee certifications like Bird Friendly reach their full potential, whether that be trying bird-friendly coffee at a birding event or buying a special bag of beans to brew up for your birder friends. A cup of coffee is more than a morning routine — it’s a decision to make, with implications for the natural world.

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