Bird Friendly Coffee: Good For The Farmers?


As consumers become more focused on the origins of their coffee, the labels and certifications that should help us to identify those which uphold our environmental and social values often end up making the purchasing process seem even more daunting, confusing, and controversial. In his interview with Dr. Robert Rice of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird Friendly” coffee certification, Jefferson Shriver of CRS hits all the right notes with questions that ring true for those of us not only seeking more information, but some much-needed clarity amidst it all. Is my coffee good for the environment? Does that mean it is less producer-focused, or can basing my purchase on social and environmental motives go hand-in-hand? What is the detailed basis for this thumbs up or thumbs down? In the interview below, Dr. Rice succinctly and thoroughly explains how and why coffee that is good for birds is good for the environment, for the producers, and for the future of this delicious start to many a morning.

Dr. Robert Rice is commonly referred to as the coffee industry’s “voice of the birds,” and the certification he represents the gold standard for environmentally friendly coffee.

That point is difficult to argue:  The Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly coffee

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certification requires farmers to be organic certified, possess at least ten different species of trees on random sites on the farm, and to grow their coffee under a three-story shade canopy at least twelve meters high.

So while Bird Friendly is good for the birds and biodiversity, is it also good for the farmers?  If biodiversity is going to benefit over the long term, the farmers will have to perceive the benefits.  Rice is a co-founder of the Bird Friendly certification, a Research Scientist with SMBC, and a geographer by academic formation.  Jefferson Shriver interviewed Rice on May 13th.

 What do you see as the primary benefits of the Bird Friendly certification for smallholder farmers?

For small farmers, there is an economic benefit.  There is a premium they get, above and beyond organic, anywhere from 5 to 12 cents more above and beyond the organic premium.  Given the cost of bird friendly certification is small or moderate in comparison, this is an additional benefit of the certification.

There are also other benefits, some tangible and intangible.  By growing coffee in an agroforestry system, farmers have firewood, fruits, building materials, and other non-coffee products.  It is sometimes difficult to call these farms coffee farms because they produce so many things.

An additional factor is prestige.  Farmers who use the Bird Friendly certification are proud to have farms that are providing habitat for birds.

 What other crops does coffee grow well with that makes this production system more appealing to small holder farmers?

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In regions like Central America, there are months when farmers are not getting paid for their coffee, their subsistence crops run their course, and they are dealing with the hungry months.  Farmers using the shade grown systems we certify can derive income from things like nispero (high value tropical fruit), avocados, bananas, and an array of citrus crops.  All of these crops can also be consumed by the family, and some can be fed to small livestock such as pigs.  There are really a whole range of crops that are useful both for their end use value and others that are bartered with neighbors.

Shade itself has tremendous value to the farmer.  I did research on this subject in Peru and Guatemala, where shade can range anywhere from 19-30 % of the value of the entire farm.

How do you respond to critics of shade grown and organic who say that coffee yields are low using these systems, and may even be a recipe to keep farmers trapped in poverty?

Those who qualify are small growers, and they are not about to take away their shade, as there are too many benefits to them.  With organic, with the data I have from producer groups, they get a double premium.   Bird Friendly certification is also much less expensive than other certifications, and so the return on investment is even better.

Smallholders are good land stewards.  Compare, for instance, the agriculture practices of a small holder using a shade grown system to an estate farm using minimum to no shade.   The estate farms in pure sun suffer from erosion and use agro-chemicals, all of which has an effect on the environment.  In terms of sustainability, these agroforestry systems are more likely to maintain their productivity for the long haul.  While coffee yields may be lower than the sun grown, agro-chemical counterparts, we need to look at this system in terms of everything that is yielded, not just coffee.  What is the total yield per hectare, incorporating all the crops?

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What connections would you make between Bird Friendly coffee and climate change?

Climate change trends indicate that there will be a general drying effect in the region, and also there will be stronger hurricanes happening later in the season.  So tree cover tends to protect soil moisture and creates micro-climates.  There is less of a drying out of the soil if you have cover.  But in terms of the coffee and the harvest, much occurs from late august to October, which is hurricane season.  If you have forest cover over your coffee, the winds and rains get broken up at the canopy level, so the coffee is protected and weather impacts are mitigated through shade cover.

Also, insects and wildlife diversity breeds stability in an agro-ecological system.  This will only help farmers adapt to climate change.

There has been much focus on new coffee variety breeding.  I’m not sure that we can breed our way out of this problem.  I think that land management is an important part of the solution.

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It is common to hear SMBC Bird Friendly as the gold standard of environmental certifications in coffee.  Why is this? 

I talked to a roaster recently who said, “The Bird Friendly criteria hold the highest bar for protecting habitat.”   The fact that we link the certification to organic leads to how the soil is managed, and makes us a double certification.   Over 90% of farmers that are bird friendly are small farmers organized in coops, and have the Fairtrade certification.  So when combined as a triple certification, Bird Friendly has social and economic criteria through Fairtrade, environmental and health benefits through organic, and biodiversity and habitat benefits through Bird Friendly.

 Bird Friendly remains a small certification.  What are some of the levers to give it more up take on the market?  Do roasters and consumers understand and value the shade criteria?

The program has been around for 10 years now, and we are surprised that it hasn’t grown faster than it should.   If people read about it, then they get it pretty quickly.  But some people say when they ask me about the certification, “I thought the coffee beans were good for the birds.”  So there is some confusion out there.  One market trend in our favor is that organic is a pre-requisite.  Organic is popular with roasters and consumers.

 Given that birding is second most popular hobby in the U.S., does this represent a large potential market segment for Bird Friendly coffee?

We are currently in a ramped up campaign to go after the birding organizations.  Getting the American Birding Association (ABA), the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and others to help us is key, and they are responding.

This interview was originally published by Jefferson Shriver in the  CRS Coffeelands blog.

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