What first struck me when I read about the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center this morning was that their bird friendly coffee certification was a great idea. What struck me second was that I’d read about it before on this site, or at least a teaser on the subject. Chalk not having a “part 2” up to a Cornell student’s busy schedule, but it certainly left the door open for me to discover this wonderful initiative on my own.
We’ve discussed the environmental benefits of shade grown coffee on these pages before, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a La Paz Group “touch stone” in many ways. Leave it to them to so clearly make sense of all the sustainable coffee certifiers on the market from a bird’s eye point of view.
Making Sense of Sustainable Coffee Labels
They’re those little rectangular icons lined up on your favorite gourmet coffee bags—a tree, a flower, a frog, a harvester, each trying to tell you something about how the coffee was grown. But what does each one mean, and how do they differ? Here’s a list of common labels and their benefits for birds….
Bird Friendly. Certified by scientists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, this coffee is organic and meets strict requirements for both the amount of shade and the type of forest in which the coffee is grown. Bird Friendly coffee farms are unique places where forest canopy and working farm merge into a single habitat. By paying a little extra and insisting on Bird Friendly coffee, you can help farmers hold out against economic pressures and continue preserving these valuable lands. The good news is that there’s more Bird Friendly coffee out there than many people realize—we just need to let retailers know we want it…
Organic. As with other organic crops, certified organic coffee is grown without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and is fairly sustainable—although there are no criteria for shade cover. Because of coffee’s growth requirements, it’s likely that organic coffee has been grown under some kind of shade. However, many farmers shade their coffee using other crops or nonnative, heavily pruned trees that provide substantially less habitat for birds, and the organic label offers no information about this.
Rainforest Alliance. The most popular environmentally friendly certification for coffee as well as tea, cocoa, and fruits, Rainforest Alliance requires alternatives to chemical and pesticide use (though they stop short of organic certification), erosion control, restricted water use, and ecosystem management efforts. Because Rainforest Alliance develops standards for a wide range of farms, their shade-cover requirements are not as demanding as Bird Friendly coffee. Also, Rainforest Alliance allows coffee blends to be sold with the Rainforest Alliance label even if only a percentage of the beans (currently only 30 percent, with plans to scale up to 90 percent) carry the certification. Rainforest Alliance has a laudable goal to make a difference on a fairly large scale (they certified 540 million pounds of coffee in 2011), but there is no guarantee their certified farms meet the wintering needs of migrant songbirds.
Fair Trade. Inspired by humanitarian concerns, Fair Trade labeling helps to ensure that the workers on coffee farms get paid fairly for the work they do. The higher prices that Fair Trade products earn help to provide an alternative to the price leverage that large coffee buyers can wield. However, a Fair Trade label does not automatically indicate that any environmentally friendly practices were followed.
Shade-grown. “Shade-grown” labels often appear on specialty coffees, but unfortunately this designation is not regulated and doesn’t tell you much about the growing conditions at the farm. When the idea for Bird Friendly coffee was hatched by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in 1996, plans for the certification process faltered while coffee companies quickly adopted the term “shade-grown” as a marketing buzzword. Unfortunately, this type of coffee can be grown among sparse trees on farms that lack diverse forest structure. Some shade-grown coffee is even grown under only the flimsy cover of banana trees fed artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
Sun-grown. Most coffee grown at an industrial scale is grown under full sun. Acres upon acres of coffee bushes planted in hedge-like rows are sustained by fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. If a coffee brand bears no labels at all, it is likely produced with these methods and is unsustainable.
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