Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Keeping the coffee politik clean

Go organic for the birds

In dollar value, coffee is second only to petroleum as the most important legal export commodity in the world.

We love our coffee. In fact, Canadians drink more than 30 million cups of the stuff every day. But as we sip away, most of us are totally unaware that there’s a good chance our caffeine addiction is contributing to the demise of wildlife, including birds right in our own backyard.

Here’s the caffeine-stained link. Most of the world’s coffee is grown 20 degrees north or south of the equator – between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer – in what’s known as the Coffee Belt. Up until the early 1970s, most coffee growers around the world grew Arabica coffee, which, in its wild form is native to high elevations in Ethiopia. To mimic the conditions Arabica coffee plants prefer, they used a protective shade canopy of trees.

But in the past two decades, all that changed. Once somebody figured out just how great a fortune could be made from coffee – one coffee equipment sales rep told me that the mark-up on a single cup sold can be 40 or more times the cost – the push was on to push coffee bushes to the max.

New hybrids that thrived in full sun produced much higher yields. But they also needed to be more highly managed. And like anything else, when you push the limits there’s payback. The so-called technification of coffee plantations has meant, amongst other things, the depletion of the soil and the application of millions of tons of chemical fertilizers plus insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. The plants are also subject to premature death in areas with a marked dry season, so they need to be replaced much more frequently than the shade varieties.

To pull all this off, enter agro-business with mind-bogglingly huge land holdings. Exit the smaller, traditional family-run type of shade-grown coffee plantations and estates, plus all the trees that formed the protective canopies on these holdings.

As you can imagine, once the beautiful canopy of taller tropical trees goes, so do a lot of other beautiful things – insects, lizards, tiny tree frogs, and plants like bromeliads and orchids that thrive in the rainforest. As go the trees, so go the birds, not only resident species (tinamous, parrots, trogons, becards, toucans, and woodcreepers to name a few), but also species from B.C. backyards which migrate to these areas each winter, including vireos, the doleful-looking Swainson’s thrush and the spectacularly coloured western tanagers and northern orioles.

One study found a decrease from 10 to four common species of migratory birds on sun-grown coffee sites. As for the overall birdlife, studies in Colombia and Mexico found 94-97 per cent fewer bird species in sun-grown coffee than in shade-grown coffee. No surprise – over two-thirds of birds are found in the tree canopy of shade plantations and less than 10 per cent are found foraging around coffee plants.

Picking the right pick-me-up

So what can you do? Pick a coffee that does right by everything, not just your own addled brain. And that means searching out shade-grown coffee.

One of the best assurances around is the Smithsonian Institute’s Bird-Friendly designation. Unfortunately, it’s tough to find their certified shade-grown coffee in Canada, mainly because there’s not much of it around.

Next best? According to Mickey McLeod, co-owner of Salt Spring Roasting Co., look for certified organic brands or at least those designated fair trade. (While the fair trade designation has more to do with trade justice by assuring a fair price to the coffee grower, it also usually means the coffee is grown on smaller plantations with more traditional methods. But that’s a topic for another coffee klatch.)

"Generally, by supporting organic farming, you are protecting bird habitat, much more so than you do by buying conventional coffee," he says. "Organically grown means it’s grown with a lot of the shade-grown principles."

Granted, shade-grown is a complicated issue because of the different levels of shade involved, and other circumstances – for instance, sometimes the plants used for shade are banana trees, not indigenous trees. Still, all my research points to at least buying organic or fair trade coffee if you can’t find shade-grown. Mickey concurs.

"I’ve been in Costa Rica, Peru and Mexico and have seen organic coffee plantations there that are not Smithsonian-certified shade-grown, but they do have shade trees and they do attract birds because they help to eat bugs," he says.

"Traditional organic coffee growing encourages other trees and shade so that creates habitat for birds, unlike conventional coffee-growing where they just totally flatten the hillside and put hybrid bushes in without any shade."

And bonus: the flavour is better. Healthy soil means healthy plants and that translates to flavour. Love that organic fair trade coffee.

Where to buy

Salt Spring Coffee is available at Nesters Market, IGA Marketplace and Creekside Market. Moguls Café in Village Square is very big on organic/fair trade certified coffee, stocking 10 different varieties. Hotbox Coffee and Internet is also hot on them. They stock three varieties, plus all their espresso is made from certified organic/fair trade coffee. Starbucks carries one certified organic shade-grown brand in decaf and regular. Blenz Coffee Shop in Marketplace stocks two certified organic lines.

It’s a fact

Coffee is the third most common import in the U.S., behind oil and steel. The U.S. consumes about 1/3 of the world’s coffee.

In dollar value, coffee is second only to petroleum as the most important legal export commodity in the world. Revenues exceed $10 billion per year. It’s also the second largest source of foreign exchange for developing countries around the world and is particularly important for Latin America and the Caribbean, where it is the leading source of foreign exchange.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who has woken up and smelt the coffee politics.