Birds, bugs and beans all benefit from the biodiversity surrounding shade-grown coffee
The Tennessee warbler is a small, greenish-yellow songbird native to Canada (what?) and it just loves coffee. Not just any coffee though— the robusta stuff that grows on sunny hillsides isn’t even close to a substitute for the bird’s favorite Coffea arabica. Even if you’re a coffee aficionado yourself, you’re probably not flying down to South American coffee plantations every year like the warblers do, although admittedly, they’re yet to have even a single sip of fresh brewed beans. The birds are there because a well-maintained coffee plantation is the heart of their winter ecosystem, much to benefit of us all.
Living better, together
Tennessee warblers, tanagers, orioles and 39 other species of North American birds migrate each year to Central and South America hoping to find a spot in the diverse and protective environments of “shade-grown” coffee farms. Arabica coffee plants really don’t like more than a few hours of sun a day, and so the best way to grow them is to plant them as an understory under taller canopy trees. In addition to providing shade, the taller trees will also help fight erosion, help with water quality and even enrich soil. When leaves and branches fall to the ground, that material biodegrades back into the soil which reduces the need for additional fertilizers, making the coffee cultivation just a bit easier.
The biodiversity helps cut down on the need for pesticide use too. The variety of trees, flowers and other flora attracts a range of birds, frogs, insects and even mammals. In the case of the birds, they’re wintering around the coffee with the goal of fattening up, so they diligently eat up as many worms and caterpillars as they can, helping protect the plants. Tennessee warblers in particular will sometimes also eat nectar and fruit, and in the process spread seeds, further encouraging the local ecosystem.
Beans in bulk
The alternative to this diverse and sustainable system is sun-grown coffee, which needs a lot more intervention on the part of humans. In the 1990s, farmers started growing hybrid arabica plants that could survive more sun exposure, and they’d plant them in homogeneous rows, clearing out other plants in the process. It was considered more efficient to bulk up production this way, but these plantations require a lot more fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and more to keep things running, to say nothing of how this kind of farming leaves nothing for birds or other beneficial species.
At this point, nearly half the coffee acreage in the world produces “sun coffee,” but it’s certainly not your only option out there (which is good because since when is your morning coffee optional?) Ask your favorite brewer how their plants are sourced, and if you have any kind of doubt, you can look for shade-certification from the Rainforest Alliance or the Bird Friendly mark from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (many of which are conveniently sorted and listed at Honest Grounds.com). In addition to providing a haven for biodiversity, it’s also a sign of some tasty coffee beans that have been able to grow in the shade, just like they like to.
Source: The Coffee–Songbird Connection by Amanda Rodewald, Scientific American