Shade-Grown Coffee

Helping Birds One Cup at a Time

Scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center have discovered that the connection between birds and coffee helps coffee farmers and the environment.

In 2000, the center launched the shade-grown coffee certification program to promote the growth of sustainable coffee, meaning coffee that is viable economically, environmentally and socio-culturally.

Coffee grown in the shade of tree canopies, rather than on land cleared of other vegetation, provides a habitat for a number of species, including migratory birds such as various species of warblers, vireos, orioles, grosbeaks, hummingbirds, tanagers, and many more. In addition to birds, shade coffee plantations provide habitat for orchids, insects, mammals (such as bats), reptiles, and amphibians.

Shade-grown coffee, in contrast to sun-grown or “technified” coffee, provides food and shelter for songbirds, as well as other animals and plants. The use of shade trees provides natural mulch, which reduces the need for chemical fertilizers. These trees protect the coffee plants that grow beneath them from rain and sun, help maintain soil quality, reduce the need for weeding, and aid in pest control. Organic matter from shade trees reduces erosion, contributes nutrients to the soil, and prevents metal toxicities.

Shade-grown coffee is given the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly label if the growing conditions meet certain criteria. The coffee must meet organic standards, canopy height, foliage cover, and number of bird species, among other criteria.

The Smithsonian trains certification agencies to recognize these criteria and carry out Bird Friendly evaluations at the same time they inspect farms for organic standards. Farmers volunteer for the inspection and pay nothing to the Smithsonian center. Farmers benefit by being able to charge a higher price for their coffee. Currently, 18 farms in North and South America are Bird Friendly approved.

Despite the benefits involved in the program, the Bird Friendly label has a very small niche in the American coffee market, which is dominated by mass market brands sold in grocery stores. Bird Friendly coffee makes up a small percentage of organic coffees, which account for only about 5 percent of the specialty coffee market.

Bird Friendly, like other specialty coffees, costs a few dollars more per pound than regular coffee, and roasters give 25 cents per pound to the Smithsonian program.

The Smithsonian’s label did find its way into the Japanese market. Last year it signed a deal with the Sumitomo Corp., and Bird Friendly coffee will be roasted in Tokyo and Kyoto.

No other organizations certify for providing good bird habitats, but the Rainforest Alliance does certify for shade-grown coffee. The programs are compatible, but the Smithsonian has a stricter certification program.

Shade coffee is beginning to makes its way into the specialty market alongside organic and fair-trade coffees, but not all of it is certified. Some companies market coffee as shade-grown but have no criteria or standards.

To find a source of Bird Friendly coffee, click here.

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