Shade coffee plantation in Guatemala. This image is typical of a traditional shade coffee plantation in which only some or none of the canopy has been removed and coffee crops have been added.
Editor's Note: This article was coordinated by Suzanne Aldrich, leader of the Bird-Friendly Coffee Club, Western Cuyahoga Audubon. The following description of coffee labeling comes from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds website and is used with permission. Read their full article, "Making Sense Of Coffee Labels: Does Your Coffee Support Wintering Warblers?" here. You may also be interested in this recent article, "In Colombia, Shade-Grown Coffee Sustains Songbirds and People Alike" here.
Labels on your favorite bag of coffee are all trying to tell you something! Instead of standing in the aisle of your grocery store or local farmer’s market looking confused, here is an explanation of common labels and what they mean for us and the 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 (see below).
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, which is good. 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 standards for shade cover are less stringent than Bird Friendly, but more than 70 percent of Rainforest Alliance certified farms maintain shade cover and the standard promotes preserving forest in reserves and along waterways. On farms where forest canopy is not the native ecosystem type, conservation area set-asides of 30 percent or greater are required in the standard.
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