A complete guide to “bird-friendly” coffee

Aidan Gant
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March 16, 2022
bird friendly coffee

With the number of certifications claiming to guarantee ethical practices in the coffee supply chain, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. However, one certification every coffee business should be aware of is “bird-friendly coffee”.

An estimated 75% of the world’s coffee production actively destroys forest habitats and endangers millions of birds. A bird-friendly certification ensures coffee producers adapt their growing practices to provide a habitat for birds and other wildlife.

This certification not only provides farmers with a premium for their product, but ensures the coffee is 100% organic as there are no chemical pesticides used.

Read on to find out more about bird-friendly coffee and the benefits of sourcing it for your roastery.

bird in colombia

What is bird-friendly coffee?

Essentially, bird-friendly coffee is produced in a way that limits the impact on surrounding bird habitats and populations.

It refers to coffee grown in an agroforest environment, where coffee plants thrive alongside a diverse range of native trees and additional crops. This helps preserve the natural surroundings of the farm’s forest environment, which is essential to international bird populations.

In 1996, the Smithsonian Institution established the bird-friendly certification in response to the habitat destruction seen throughout the early 1990s.

This was a direct result of farmers switching from shade-grown coffee to sun-resilient varieties during the 1970s. These sun-resilient coffee plants thrived in full sunlight. Consequently, farmers cut down the canopy of trees, effectively destroying the agroforest environment.

Research indicates that since the 1970s, three billion migratory birds have disappeared from North America.

As coffee is a $100 billion industry, farming practices and the land clearance it requires are among the biggest threats to bird populations. For example, the long-term decline in bird populations across agricultural farms in Costa Rica reported 61% of bird species were negatively affected, according to studies.

Alternatively, bird-friendly coffee farms are known to support a similar number of bird species as an undisturbed forest.

Additionally, bird-friendly certification aims to help coffee farmers by encouraging symbiotic relationships that could benefit both parties.

For example, planting shade trees could help retain moisture and improve nutrient levels in the soil. Also, it allows coffee cherries to ripen at a slower pace, similar to those grown at higher altitudes.

Furthermore, a strong bird habitat can provide an effective solution to a threat every coffee farmer faces – the coffee borer beetle.

These pests are resistant to most pesticides, and with the rise of global temperatures, their territory is spreading. Therefore, predation is the most efficient way to remove them.

rainforest alliance

How does bird-friendly coffee compare against other certifications?

In recent years, coffee roasters have increasingly identified a need to reduce their environmental impact and use their business as a tool for good.

One of the most effective ways of doing this is by sourcing coffee from certified farms, whether this is Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade.

However, bird-friendly coffee has a specific responsibility and definition which may not be the case with many other certifications.

Indeed, habitat preservation and biodiversity may form part of other accreditation. But the standards set by the Smithsonian’s bird-friendly programme are some of the most effective.

To achieve bird-friendly status, coffee farms must have at least 40% shade coverage from a minimum of ten different species of trees. Additionally, it must have a minimum average canopy height of 12 metres.

The canopy must contain a backbone of native trees and an underlying layer of vegetation. Additionally, it must contain trees of a different species that grow higher than the canopy.

Furthermore, farms must be USDA organic certified, meaning no pesticides or synthetic fertilisers can be used on the crops. The farms must also be managed in a way that impacts the environment as little as possible.

For example, bird-friendly farms are expected to leave leaf litter where it falls to provide ground cover and improve soil quality.

One area of ethical concern that the bird-friendly scheme does not cover is fair wages for coffee farmers.

Typically, seasonal workers are paid “per bag” of coffee they harvest. As it takes more work to harvest from agroforests than it does from sun-grown plantations, it is important that workers’ rights are not violated.

However, many of the Smithsonian’s bird-friendly certified farms are smaller, and less prone to neglecting the rights of workers. This may be because many of the workers are typically family members, if they aren’t the owners themselves.

colombian bird

Why should roasters and coffee shops source bird-friendly coffee?

In addition to promoting sustainable farming practices, there are several advantages for roasters who support bird-friendly coffee.

An article published in the People and Nature journal states there are at least 45 million bird-watchers in the US alone. These could provide a strong and broad consumer base for shade-grown certified coffee.

By comparison, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) estimates there around 3 million self-confessed bird-watchers in the UK.

Furthermore, the Smithsonian gathered its own data by surveying zoo visitors across 179 locations. It found 88% of their customers would prefer to buy bird-friendly coffee.

Additionally, to know their coffee was bird-friendly, these customers would be willing to pay an additional $1.07 per cup of coffee, or $2.17 per 12oz (340g) bag of beans.

More customers expect the businesses they support to make some effort towards protecting the environment and everything within it.

recyclable coffee bags

In addition to supporting certified bird-friendly coffee, roasters can give their customers peace of mind by investing in sustainable coffee packaging.

Packaging made from biodegradable and compostable materials are better for the environment as they reduce the consumption of recourse and the amount of waste materials.

At MTPak Coffee, we are dedicated to helping your business make the right packaging choices for your product and the planet. Our range of sustainable coffee bags includes recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable options made from renewable, environmentally-friendly materials.

For more information on our recyclable coffee bags, contact the team.

A complete guide to “bird-friendly” coffee

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