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

The New York Times Magazine published a well-written account about the ongoing illegal coffee growing in Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park. The article focuses on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s investigations into continued forest clearing in the park by small farmers who sell their coffee at rock-bottom prices to middlemen, who then sell to large coffee companies. The article notes this probe began around 2015. However, the World Wildlife Fund put out a detailed report on this issue in 2007, and a paper in a well-respected peer-reviewed journal in 2009 outlined that this problem had already existed for 30 years. Below I list all the posts in which I summarized or wrote about the illegal coffee growing (and purchasing) in this region.

The Times piece nicely laid out the complexities of the situation and the plight of the exploited farmers. The Wildlife Conservation Society concluded the certifications and traceability were not working because the supply chain was so complicated that the auditing was “too expensive for exporters specializing in cheap, bad coffee.” Nor was expelling or punishing farmers the solution, so WCS launched a program to help farmers improve their yields and livelihoods, even at the borders or within the park with the goal of reducing additional deforestation and eventually reforesting plots.

I’m not going to delve into the pros and cons of this approach, other than to say that I don’t think conservation organizations need to be in the business of agricultural extension services when the giant corporations raking in billions of dollars of profits at the expense of farmers and the environment could and should easily be funding and executing these efforts in totality*. Once again, the responsibility for ensuring environmental ethics and sustainability is fobbed off on a third party. There is no mention in the article on the importance of the “demand” side of the equation, although the author provides this brilliant and not-so-subtle hint:

The reality is that such beans are sold into the anonymity of a commodity market designed to make uniform products for placeless destinations. The point of this coffee was to forget that it had ever come from anywhere at all.

A company can decide to sacrifice profit for ethical responsibility, but only to the degree that shareholders allow them to. And it is the people who buy the products that influence the bottom line which pushes the shareholders to make a company change policies. The article, while illuminating, leaves the average reader feeling rather helpless, or at least with the impression that some organization out there is working to solve the problem.

The average reader is you, and there is something you can do to move the needle in this complex situation. It’s simple and elegant: Remember that your coffee does come from somewhere, and make the choice not to buy and support cheap, anonymized, corporate coffee.

My posts — tons of background:

*And indeed some of them are partnering with WCS to tackle this problem, such as Olam International and JDE. If you believe that corporate giants are sincere or effective in their efforts, consider Nestlé’s “zero deforestation” claim. Despite the fact that Nestlé purchases more coffee than three of the five raw products included in the plan (soy, meat, or palm oil), it was not a commodity Nestlé chose to include in this plan.

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Revised on October 6, 2021

Posted in Coffee regions,Corporate coffee,Nestlé/Nespresso

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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Revised on October 6, 2021

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 AsociaciÁ³n 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