- The Smithsonian Bird Friendly certification promotes coffee in the shade with at least 40% canopy coverage by various native plants, among other research-based criteria.
- A recent study examined which types of conservation actions on coffee farms would protect birds as well or better than current certification standards — an increasingly pertinent question as coffee now grows in an area of farmland that could cover a tenth of the U.S.
- The researchers found that while growing coffee in the shade of a diverse canopy protects more habitat-generalistic and non-breeding birds, while intact forest and growing coffee in the open air conserves more forest specializing and breeding birds.
- The Smithsonian plans to update its certification criteria based on these results, although researchers say it still remains the “gold standard.” For coffee drinkers who don’t have access to Smithsonian Bird Friendly coffee, researchers suggest all certified organic options.
Organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly: Coffee today has many labels, certifications that tell consumers that their beans have been grown in a way that supports the people who grow them and the ecosystems that support them. And with coffee now growing on more than 1 million square miles of farmland in some of the most biodiverse regions around the world, these differences could mean a lot.
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) has one such coffee certification program: Smithsonian Bird Friendly. It promotes coffee in the shade where the canopy has at least 40% foliage made up of various native plants, among other research-based criteria.
A recent study by the SMBC and scientists from Colombia and the US examined whether other types of conservation efforts would protect birds as well or better than their current certification standard.
The researchers found that while growing coffee in the shade of a diverse canopy protects more habitat-generalistic and non-breeding birds, while setting aside intact forests on or around coffee plantations conserves more forest specializing and breeding birds. The results have been published in the journal Biological Preservation.
“Having forest in the landscape as well as shade coffee on the landscape are complementary approaches to conservation, and you really need both to sustain the entire community out there,” Ruth Bennett, a research ecologist at the SMBC and a researcher study co-author, Mongabay said.
While there’s plenty of evidence that shade coffee promotes biodiversity, there’s some criticism of the certification’s inflexibility, Bennett said. By focusing solely on shade-grown coffee, there are no options for farmers who don’t have shade canopies but may take other actions that are good for birds, such as protecting and setting aside tracts of intact forest on their plantations.
Hearing these criticisms, researchers set out in search of coffee plantations in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, a region with one of the highest percentages of endemic bird species in the world. Here the mosaic landscape has a mix of sun coffee, shade coffee and forest, making it an ideal laboratory to compare methods and also to learn which species of birds are conserved with the bird-friendly coffee stand and which species are excluded from protection.
In each of these landscapes, highly trained ornithologists stood in one location and listened, documenting all the birds by sound. They repeated this process several times, both during the breeding season, when all tropical birds present find nests and feed their babies, and in the non-breeding season, when many migratory birds come from North America.
“We know that even with the best observers in the world, you can never detect all the birds that are present at any given time,” Bennett said, so they took it a step further and used computer models to predict which birds would be present for each one. combination of habitat variables. They then simulated different landscapes with combinations of coffee in the shade, intact forest plots and coffee in the full sun.
“I really appreciated their inclusion of the hybrid landscape — where shade coffee alternates with forest — as a landscape type,” Stacy Philpott, a professor and director of the Center for Agroecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who doesn’t was involved in the study, Mongabay said in an email. “I hope that more studies can include such simulated and real landscapes to take us away from this false dichotomy that has arisen in the land-sharing and land-saving debate.”
Overall, the researchers concluded that both strategies — setting aside forest and growing under various shade trees — can serve different components of the bird community at different times of the year. “But with both together, you really do preserve all the birds in the landscape,” Bennett said. Birds, she added, are a really useful indicator for monitoring biodiversity in general, so what’s good for the birds is likely to be good for many other species as well.
These findings have direct implications for Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly coffee certification program, which plans to update the standard using these results. Bennett said they hope greater flexibility in the standard will protect more birds and also encourage greater participation from farmers and agricultural cooperatives.
“I think their recommendations for flexibility in certification are relevant,” Philpott said, “but it’s clear that there could be bigger issues related to coffee markets, prices, access to land, and social inequalities that drive conservation outcomes regardless. [which] strategies are pursued and recommended.”
Coffee farms, the paper notes state, provide a model system to study wildlife management in agroforestry landscapes. And with nearly 10 million tons of coffee consumed annually, coming from an area of farmland that could cover a tenth of the United States, using agroforestry methods that combine trees, crops and animals in a way that supports biodiversity, soil and sequesters building carbon from the atmosphere is an increasingly relevant task.
And for the coffee drinker looking to support wildlife, Bennett says, Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly coffee is still the “gold standard.” But if that’s not available, or would generate a heavy carbon footprint in shipping, she recommends organic. “Coffee cannot normally be grown without shade in an organic system. So if it’s certified organic, it probably has some shade and native vegetation.”
Valente, JJ, Bennett, RE, Gómez, C., Bayly, NJ, Rice, RA, Marra, PP, … & Sillett, TS (2022). Land sparing and land division provide complementary benefits for preserving avian biodiversity in coffee growing landscapes. Biological Preservation, 270109568. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2022.109568
Philpott, S.M., Bichier, P., Rice, R.A., & Greenberg, R. (2007). Testing the ecological and economic benefits of coffee certification programs in practice. Conservation Biology, 21(4), 975-985. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2007.00728.x
banner image of a Scarlet tanager, one of the bird species that migrate to Colombia. Photo by Jen Goellnitz via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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