Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Coffee for birds

My personal allotment
Like it or not - one of the main drivers of research is not funding. It is coffee! Coffee is what kept many of us awake at night as students while we were writing an assignment or on our thesis. Coffee is the most favorite beverage in labs all over the world and many have established almost religious rituals to celebrate their morning coffee. No conference, workshop or meeting without coffee breaks and many colleagues are not sociable before they had their first cup of the magic brown liquid.

I am also a coffee drinker and my work in biodiversity science makes me more alert to potential problems that are connected to what I consume. Due to changes in coffee production and marketing over the last few decades traditional ways of growing both coffee and cacao have changed considerably. Traditional coffee plantations can be thought of as modified forest habitats. Coffee bushes are cultivated under a forest overstory using indigenous agroforestry techniques, originally developed for growing cacao. This involves planting a mixture of nitrogen-fixing trees with other useful species to provide shade. Up to 40 species of trees can be found in some traditionally managed plantations, and many of these are managed for household or commercial commodities such as wood or fruit. 

However, in the past 40 years, coffee has begun to be grown with no shade canopy at all. While this manner of cultivation produces substantially increased yields, these cannot be sustained for many years without intensive management (which includes the use of chemical fertilizers and a range of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides). The crops are also subject to premature death in environments possessing a marked dry season, and they need to be renovated (plants replaced) much more frequently than the shade varieties. 

Aside from the agronomic risks, sun coffee production has resulted in major habitat change for migratory birds. As a result the diversity of migratory birds plummets when coffee was converted from shade to sun. As for the overall avifauna, studies in Colombia and Mexico found 94-97% fewer bird species in sun grown coffee than in shade grown coffee. This comes as no surprise since over two-thirds of the birds are found in the canopy of shade plantations and less than 10% are found foraging in coffee plants. In eastern Chiapas, Mexico, researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) found that traditionally-managed coffee and cacao plantations support over 150 species of birds, exceeded only in undisturbed tropical forest.

Already back in 1996, the movement to support shade grown coffee was sparked by the SMBC, which gathered environmentalists, farmers and coffee companies to address the problem and promote awareness of shade coffee. Today, sales of organically grown, shade coffee represent about 1%, or $30 million, of the U.S. market for coffee beans. The SMBC has also developed the only 100%-organic shade-grown coffee certification

Last weekend we went to the Guelph Organic Conference and my wife discovered a Canadian coffee distributor specialized on certified shade-grown and fair traded coffee. Birds & Beans sells a variety of blends and they taste quite nicely. The latter is quite important because many coffee aficionados claim that most fair trade, organic grown coffee are not as superior in taste. Well, I strongly suggest to give those shade-grown alternatives a chance because they might taste even better. As a matter of fact coffee beans mature more slowly in the shade allowing the accumulation of more natural sugars which enhances the flavor of the coffee. 

I am sold to the Birds & Beans alternative and will enjoy my morning cup of coffee at the office knowing that the bit of extra money I spent is used for extension services and affordable credit for coffee farmers to survive and to grow coffee in a more bird-friendly and sustainable manner.

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