How to Choose a Bird-Friendly Coffee

When it comes to caffeinating responsibly, selecting the right brew can be confusing. This guide should help.

In the age of artisanal toast and asparagus water, choosing even the most basic products can be overwhelming. Coffee is no exception—especially if you care about wildlife. Distinctions like “organic” and “shade-grown” are important for those who want to caffeinate responsibly, but it’s difficult to know whether to choose one over the other, and why it might be worth the price premium. Yet the impacts of these choices can be significant. Last year, for example, the world consumed nearly 21 billion pounds of coffee, grown across 27 million acres in the tropical forest belt, a mecca for birds and other wildlife.

For the java junkie, there’s good news up top: coffee tends to have a lower impact on birds than most other export commodities grown in biodiversity-rich areas of the tropics, such as palm oil (often used in donuts, coffee’s sidekick). “Among the range of land use choices that we face that contribute to our day to day lives, coffee is one of those choices that is benign,” says Anand Osuri, an ecologist at Columbia University.

But not all coffee farms are created equal. Generally, farms that look like forests, often called “agroforests” for their mix of coffee shrubs and stands of trees, typically house higher bird diversity than monoculture farms that have little or no natural canopy cover. “The more it looks like a forest or feels like a forest, that’s the issue,” says Robert Rice, a geographer at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

While this idea may be simple, choosing coffee that’s good for birds and other wildlife is not so clear cut. Here's what you should consider the next time you’re out for caffeine.

Look for Sustainable Beans First

If you can afford it, opt for beans that are certified shade-grown, which are stamped with seals such as “Rainforest Alliance Certified” or “Bird Friendly.” Both certifications require farmers to maintain or restore some level of canopy cover—a proxy for “forest-like”—and prohibit harmful pesticides, which limit prey for birds. The Bird Friendly certification, developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, is considered a slightly more rigorous standard from a conservation perspective (its rules related to canopy cover, pesticide use, and product purity are stricter). But both seals point consumers to coffee that maintains some habitat for birds.

“The approach [our standard] takes is to ensure that there’s natural habit on and around farms,” says Deanna Newsom, a senior manager for Research and Science Communication at Rainforest Alliance, which certifies products ranging from coffee to office supplies. “And the way we do that is by ensuring that any existing natural habitat is conserved when a farm gets certified.”

Certified shade-grown coffees make up only a small part of the global market—5.6 percent for Rainforest Alliance and around 1 percent for Bird Friendly. Often times coffees with sustainable seals also have a seal certifying them as organic (Bird Friendly has to be both). But if you can only find organic, that's still a better option. While organic has no requirement for canopy cover, it bans the use of synthetic pesticides, like Chlorpyrifos, which some farmers apply to thwart insects such as the consumptive coffee berry borer and leaf miner. Pesticides indirectly harm birds by drawing down their source of food (some birds, for example, eat the larvae of the coffee borer).  

Support ‘Relationship’ Coffee Roasters

Without a sustainability seal, it’s more difficult to tell if your coffee comes from a farm that’s hospitable for birds, but not impossible. Katie Goodall, a scientist and assistant dean at the School for Field Studies, says to look for “relationship” coffee: small roasters in the U.S. who form ties with smallholder coffee communities to develop their product. These communities, she says, produce the majority of sustainably grown beans.

“Look on the package for how [the company] purchased their coffee,” she says. “They’ll tell you about the communities or the farms where they’re buying their coffee.” According to Goodall, promoting bird conservation hinges on supporting these farmers. “If your goal is to protect birds, then supporting the farmers . . . is part and parcel with that goal,” she says.

Know the Differences Between Arabica and Robusta Beans

Then there’s the question of coffee strain, or species. On a bag of your favorite brew, you might see “100% Arabica Coffee,” which means that the beans come from the arabica coffee species. Arabica is most likely the species you know and love—with perceived greater quality and sweeter flavor, it makes up about 60 percent of the market. Robusta, on the other hand, is considered the lower-quality sister, and is often used to make instant coffee. In addition to quality and flavor, the strains are distinguished by their price—and in their ability to support birds.

If you know little of the farm in which the coffee was grown, opt for arabica. This species is more commonly grown under at least partial shade, whereas robusta, a more sun and heat tolerant plant, is typically grown in more intensively managed steads with little canopy cover—a worse environment for most wildlife. (If robusta is shade-grown, however, new research shows that it can support a near-equal diversity of birds, relative to arabica.)

As a Last Resort, Consider the Country of Origin

If all else fails, look for the country of origin—another, albeit far less reliable, method to screen for sustainably-grown coffee. For example, in Brazil and Vietnam, the two largest global producers, the vast majority of coffee is grown under high-intensity, full-sun conditions—in other words, in farms that don’t look like forests. But in other countries, like India, Ecuador, and Peru, the majority of coffee is grown under a canopy. And canopy cover is better for birds. “The reason why Indian coffee is so good for wildlife is that it’s shade grown,” says Krithi Karanth, a scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. But keep in mind that a country’s coffee growing conditions can turn on a dime based on political or economic changes.

So there you have it. If you want to help birds through your personal coffee choices, select coffee that's certified sustainable or from a relationship roaster—or better yet, choose brews that meet both. Also consider the coffee species and where its grown. For those of you who grab jo on the go, head to small roasters or major retailers that serve certified brews, like Caribou Coffee, which now serves 100 percent Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee (visit the website of Rainforest Alliance or Bird Friendly to see where you can buy their products).

With these tips in mind, choosing the right beans hopefully won't worsen your caffeine headache. 


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