For the Birds Radio Program: The Coffee Connection

Original Air Date: Feb. 3, 1997

Organic coffee grown in the shade of a diverse forest is much better for birds than coffee grown in the sun. 4:34

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  • coffee
  • shade-grown coffee


Today I’m going to talk about an ominous environmental problem that will probably touch a little too close to home for many morning radio listeners. Coffee.

When I was a girl, I loved to watch those commercials about Juan Valdez walking through his Columbian coffee plantation. I yearned to go down to Central America just to see one of those lush, lovely plantations for myself As it turns out, old coffee plantations are wonderful for birds, as well. Standard coffee trees require shade, which means that those traditional plantations were planted under a canopy of natural old growth, including towering trees and the bromeliads, orchids, mosses, and other lush tropical plants that literally grow on those trees. Animal species abound on traditional coffee plantations because of the diversity of plants.

So what’s the problem? Those wacky botanists and horticulturists are always trying to develop new plant varieties and hybrids that will earn them money by saving farmers money, and in the case of coffee, they created a monster–dwarf varieties of coffee trees that grow in full sun.

Farmers can cram 3000 to 7000 of these new plants onto one hectare, compared to only 1000 to 2000 of the shade-requiring ones. But to successfully grow these new varieties, farmers are using rapidly increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. Virtually half of all the land in northern Latin America is blanketed by coffee farms, and already about half of this area has been modernized.

Field studies in Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic indicate that species diversity drops precipitously when tropical forest is destroyed to make way for coffee monocultures, even without the pesticides. And the problem increases day after day. Biologists and conservationists are alarmed, but can’t seem to figure out what to do about the problem.

The Rainforest Alliance is giving a green seal of approval to coffee grown on some forested farms, hoping that as people discover the environmental problems associated with sun-grown coffee, market pressures will induce growers to stick with traditional methods. But scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center have serious reservations about this particular certification program. The main shade farm the alliance worked with uses many pesticides to grow this supposedly green-certified coffee. Robert Rice of the Smithsonian Bird Center said in a recent issue of Science:

This issue goes beyond shade versus sun. Coffee cultivation falls along a continuum from highly traditional to highly modernized. If a shade farm has just one tree species and relies heavily on pesticides, it can be as bad as a sun plantation.

He recommends working with the Organic Crop Improvement Association and other certifiers of organic food, and adding shade criteria to the certification process. Conservation International now assists shade farmers, helping them comply with organic-certification programs and trying to ensure that the farmers using traditional methods get reasonable prices for their products.

All in all, the situation is a confusing muddle right now–the kind of bad dream you want to escape by nursing a nice, hot cup of java. Go ahead. But start asking your coffee suppliers whether it’s sun-grown or traditional, so little by little people will figure out that we want our coffee, and tropical forests and birds too. The world is big enough for people and birds, both–if only we’re creative enough to figure out how to share.