As the market demand for coffee grows in industrializing nations, bird-friendly coffee may offer an eco-friendly solution to an unsustainable industry. The global population consumes approximately 7.5 million tons of coffee each year, and experts expect global coffee consumption to more than double in the next 20 years.
Earth may not have the capacity to keep up with demand. Forests absorb 40% of human fossil fuel emissions, and the destruction of these carbon sinks contributes to a warming climate that diminishes the land suitable for growing coffee and drives coffee plantations into previously intact forests at higher altitudes. This cycle of deforestation and warming perpetuates the loss of the 1.6 billion livelihoods. It also destroys habitats for 80% of terrestrial species supported by forests.
A Possible Future for Coffee Production
Some farmers embrace shade-grown coffee as an environmentally and economically sustainable means of coffee production. Shade-grown coffee production is a method of agroforestry that integrates coffee plantations and forest growth on the same land. Environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee compared to full-sun coffee production include erosion control, better soil health, carbon sequestration and increased bird habitat.
These environmental advantages translate to economic benefits. For example, agroforestry practices reduce nutrient and labor inputs into the soil due to the natural decomposition of leaf matter. Agroforestry also supports bird-friendly coffee production by creating healthy bird habitat. Birds provide free pest control that eliminates or reduces the need for harmful chemical pesticide use. A single bird living on a shaded coffee plantation can protect 23-65 pounds of coffee each year from pests like the Coffee Berry Borer, which inflicts $500 million worth of damage annually to the coffee industry.
Shade-grown coffee plantations typically produce 30% less coffee than full-sun plantations. However, the economic benefits of agroforestry compensate for this loss, saving an average of $2,000 per hectare each year. In fact, a study that researchers conducted at Cornell and Columbia Universities demonstrated that small-scale farmers, including 25 million coffee farmers in developing nations who produce 80% of the world’s coffee, could optimize their profits by converting at least 36% of their plantations to shade-growing practices.
Additionally, shade-grown coffee farmers can benefit by growing tree crops like mangos, passion fruit and guava on their plantations for sale or consumption. In Guatemala and Peru, for example, fruit grown on shaded coffee farms comprises 9-11% of the plantations’ economic value.
The environmentally-induced economic benefits of practicing bird-friendly coffee production are many. Moreover, consumers are willing to pay a premium for sustainable, shade-grown coffee. A survey of more than 1,300 coffee drinkers in the U.S. interested in the conservation of bird habitat revealed that the average bird watcher is willing to pay an additional $2 per pound of coffee for bird-friendly coffee. A 50 cent premium per pound of shade-grown coffee can optimize profits on small-scale farms at 85% shaded production.
Certifications like the Rainforest Alliance certification, Nespresso’s AAA Sustainable quality certification and the Bird Friendly Coffee certification from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center all contribute to shade-grown coffee premiums. With additional support to low-income farmers from certification systems and governments, the transition to shade-grown coffee can help to reduce the growing environmental impacts of coffee production while increasing profits and fair market access for small-scale farmers. These measures will contribute to an economically and environmentally sustainable future. All of this can occur without sacrificing one of the most popular beverages in the world.
– Avery Saklad