Sustainable coffee is produced on a farm with high biological diversity and low chemical inputs. It conserves resources, protects the environment, produces efficiently, competes commercially, and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
                               -- Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, First Sustainable Coffee Congress

A group of authors have an open-access paper in the journal People and Nature, a publication of the British Ecological Society: Tapping birdwatchers to promote bird‐friendly coffee consumption and conserve birds. The authors noted there are 45 million birdwatchers in the U.S. alone, and they are considered the primary target of coffee certification schemes.

They surveyed birders who were members of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and subscribers to the Lab’s magazine; thus, a relatively well-off* demographic that was also highly educated, with 55% having a graduate degree or higher. They found (quoting the abstract, my emphasis added):

Nearly half (49%) of respondents reported considering bird habitat when purchasing coffee. However, only 38% of respondents were familiar with the Smithsonian Bird Friendly® certification and only 9% reported purchasing it. … The highest rated constraints on buying bird-friendly coffee were lack of awareness, cost, and lack of availability.

I don’t have a lot to say about this. Over a decade ago (!) right here on this site I expressed my frustration at the resistance of birders at changing their coffee buying habitats, and made a pointed plea to birders and conservationists, as knowledgeable consumers, to set an example and drink coffee that was grown in a sustainable manner, and spread the word to others. Several months later, I again lamented the lack of action (or hypocritical behavior) on the part of this generally affluent group.

Considering the demographic of the survey respondents in this study, lack of awareness and cost are excuses, in my opinion. The very magazine these respondents subscribe to has had at least two articles about shade coffee and birds, as well as additional articles on their website. Other major birdwatching magazines have also published similar articles, including this one by yours truly.

Lack of availability,  however, is a legitimate reason why more birders (and others) don’t drink Smithsonian Bird-Friendly coffee.  As of 2018, less than 0.1% of world coffee production was grown on Bird-Friendly certified farms, and only 9% of that was sold as Bird-Friendly certified**. Despite improved efforts to promote this coffee and make it easier to find and purchase, this is indeed a niche product. Lack of demand and lack of availability create a destructive feedback loop.

There is more to mull over in this paper, but we might bear in mind that it focuses specifically on certified coffee. The trend over the last decade of a proliferation of coffee certifications with a vast array of different standards (and in particular the effort to dilute ecological criteria to make certification more accessible) has created a complex, confusing, and opaque landscape for consumers.

Certified coffees are only part of the solution to ecologically-sustainable coffee production and sustainable livelihoods for farmers. While the market works itself out, I think it’s worthwhile to not only encourage the purchase of Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certified coffee, but also stress the importance of what coffee not to buy — cheap, corporate coffee with mystery origins. Boycotting Folgers and Maxwell House, two brands that represent nearly 30% of the retail volume of coffee sold in the United States, is the least we can do given their unimpressive efforts at sustainability.

More on this study:

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*The study did not ask about income, but noted that the participants had either paid a $44/yr membership fee and/or made a $100 donation to the Lab, indicating some level of disposable income.
**For various reasons, growers may not sell all of their certified crop to buyers who will sell it as such. For example, Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certified coffee cannot be mixed in with other beans and sold as certified.

Market data in last paragraph via Euromonitor Passport.

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Posted in Certifications

Male Red Siskin. Photo by Linda De Volder under a Creative Commons license.

Here’s a entry in the occasional Know Your Coffee Bird series, which profiles birds that utilize shade coffee farms. This post is about a species people might not immediately connect with coffee. It is a finch, related to more familiar goldfinches (both American and European), and like them primarily eats seeds and favors a variety of open or semi-open habitats. This is in contrast to the insect- and fruit-eating birds inhabiting tropical forests that we tend to associate with coffee farms. Let’s talk about the endangered Red Siskin (Spinus [formerly Carduelis] cucullatus).

The Red Siskin never had a large range, being primarily found along the northern coast of Venezuela, just edging into Colombia. Once common, populations are now critically fragmented across this area and it is estimated that somewhere between 1500 to 7000 birds (at best) remain in the wild; this includes a relatively recent location found in Guyana. Red Siskins are considered so iconic in Venezuela that they are depicted on the country’s currency. Streets, a park, and even the country’s Little League team is named for them (“cardenalito” in Spanish).

Habitat loss has played a role in the decline of the Red Siskin, but unsustainable trapping for the cage bird trade is a major reason for the near-disappearance of this species. Males are prized for their bright coloration (females are duller) and their ability to mate with the common canary, introducing their red coloration to future generations of canaries. Because Red Siskins can be harder to raise in captivity, wild birds are continually captured to maintain the red genes in canaries — which is actually unnecessary from a genetic standpoint. Although trapping in Venezuela has been illegal for decades, the increasing rarity of these birds, the poverty-inducing economic crisis and political upheaval in Venezuela combine to make illegal trade in the birds lucrative for both greedy poachers and desperate citizens.

In 2015, the Red Siskin Initiative was established among many partner organizations to address the precipitous declines. Strategies include research, captive colonies with the aim to breed siskins for reintroduction, reducing overexploitation, and public education. An important component of this initiative is habitat preservation and income security through coffee farming.

Venezuela once had a thriving coffee industry which was eclipsed by the oil economy and grew out of favor due to government price controls that make coffee farming unprofitable and unsustainable. However, Bird-Friendly coffee certification (which requires organic certification) qualifies the coffee as gourmet, exempt from the price controls, and allows it to be sold at a premium. In addition to organic farming methods, Bird-Friendly certification has requirements regarding shade cover and composition, native tree diversity, and other criteria that provide habitat for birds, including Red Siskins. Partners also provide technical assistance and help producers with capacity-building.

In 2019, nearly 40 farms occupying 165 ha, members of the Asociación Civil de Productores Agroforestales–Piedra de Cachimbo y Florida (ACAFLO), obtained organic certification, with 13 also gaining Bird-Friendly certification. The goal is to expand the certified production area to 400 ha by the end of 2021. Venezuela exports little or no coffee these days, and the situation is dire there. I really hope for the success of this project, and look forward to being able to purchase this coffee to support this great conservation initiative. The establishment of Bird-Friendly certified coffee farms will provide a sustainable livelihood for farmers and preserve habitat for Red Siskins and many other bird and wildlife species.

Pair of Red Siskins. From a plate in Bird Notes, scanned by the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

More reading:

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Revised on March 4, 2021

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Know Your Coffee Birds series

We especially liked these cool cans of Bird-Friendly certified coffee from Chesapeake Bay Roasting Co. They also have t-shirts!

The Bird-Friendly website at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has made it easier to find local and online retailers of Bird-Friendly certified coffee.

There is an interactive map to find local roasters. I found the page for online purchases is especially nice — each coffee has a brief description and a direct link to the roaster and filters are available. At the time of this writing, there were 125 coffees to choose from.

These resources make it easier to find and try some biodiversity-preserving coffee and find roasters that have incorporated sustainability into their supply chains.

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Posted in Certifications,Retail and specialty roasters,Smithsonian Bird-Friendly

I made the first post on this website on this day in 2005. I initially envisioned a modest collection of resources explaining the importance of “shade-grown coffee” to biodiversity, birds in particular. As an ornithologist, I knew how critical wintering habitats in the tropics are to the birds that I studied here in North America. As a coffee drinker, I was frustrated and surprised that there was no single go-to place for consumers that would enable them (us!) to make an informed choice about what coffees were grown under ecologically-responsible methods. I thought I would just whip one up!

Here I am, fifteen years and hundreds of posts later. There were so many layers of nuance to explore: not only ecology, but also agronomy, economics, marketing, and the social and cultural aspects of coffee. I attended trade shows, and visited coffee farms. And drank a lot of coffee.

There has been so much evolution in the coffee world over these years. Consolidation among the big players in coffee buyers (often to private ownership) has made it nearly impossible for me to provide what I considered to be some of the most valuable data on this site: which corporations owned which brands, and how much certified or eco-certified coffee they purchased. A proliferation of certifications or sustainability claims, with increasingly copious criteria and similar but unequal definitions, has made my other crucial task — attempting to explain what these labels, standards, and seals mean to the consumer — tedious at best.

The coffee and product reviews have been fun, and I have especially enjoyed writing about birds and biodiversity. But the difficulty in updating information on certification standards and corporate ownership, purchasing, and sustainability issues that I consider the core of my mission has me uncertain as to the future of this site. So I’ve while had some long dry spells without posting, depending on what was going on in my own life, now I feel I am at a crossroad.

I welcome constructive comments on what direction this website should take as I ponder the future. Just leaving the site here indefinitely is likely not an option. Although I am now accepting donations, I haven’t tried very hard to monetize this site because my emphasis was on providing information, not making money. As a recent semi-involuntary retiree, I don’t think I can commit to supporting the site long-term.

Thank you, readers and friends, for this interesting journey. We’ll see where the future takes us.

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Revised on November 28, 2020

Posted in Housekeeping