You bet your beak we are! But as with every labeling approach in the crazy coffee world the issues are complex and the attempts to deal with them range from super serious to supercilious. Some programs have meaning for farmers and the birds, and some just feather the nest of the companies that use and abuse them. Let’s break it down.
Science or Just Tweets?
There are two main approaches to protecting birds and migratory habitat. The first is the hyper-scientific approach of the good Dr. Robert Rice and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). Twenty years ago Dr. Bob organized a conference to look at the impact of coffee production on birds and their habitat. We kicked in a thousand dollars to get that conference off the ground (and we were a LOT smaller then, but equally committed to ecology and justice). SMBC developed metrics to determine whether a parcel of coffee land was supportive to migratory birds. These metrics include measuring total number of tree species (at least 11, including at least one “backbone” native species that anchors the ecosystem) and total foliage cover (at least 40%). There are also additional requirements for mixed strata (different heights) forests. Lots. And any farm wishing to participate must be certified organic (that’s all of our folks!). These are the farms that are eligible for SMBC Bird Friendly certification.
On a recent visit to two small certified farms that are part of our Guatemalan partner ASOBAGRI I saw for myself the rich, multistoried (and bird noisy!) ecosystem of a properly Bird Friendly operation. Both Juana Mateo (“Benedicion” farm) and Antonio Bernabe (“San Martin” farm) shared with me how proud they were that their farms have been recognized with certifications as I tried to keep up with them through thick foliage and some steep climbs. Each farmer also showed me the insects living in the bark of the native species - that’s what draws the birds, and why native species are so critical to successful bird habitat (a forest is more than just a bunch of random trees; it’s more like Bird Friendly with Benefits). Of course, the obvious question is why does a neighboring plot of land that has only 9 native tree species but actually may have more birds on a given day, not count? Such is the nature of metrics-based certification programs. But ya gotta start somewhere, and Bird Friendly is the Gold Standard of migratory bird supportive programs.
I love this approach! It is no-nonsense and practical. Unfortunately, the good folks at SMBC do not have the resources to spread their wings all over the coffeelands. We work in eleven countries currently. SMBC certification is in seven of the eleven countries we work in. Even within the countries that overlap, only 10 coops and 9 private farms have been certified under the system. Although there are many well run and responsible private farms, we only work with cooperatives that help birds and people, too. Does that mean the farms we work with are not great stewards of their land or sufficiently shaded to be approved? Not at all. But the SMBC program just isn’t that big yet. We buy SMBC Bird Friendly coffee from three coops that are covered by the program, and will continue to grow that list as the program grows. We are even encouraging some of our coops to join the program and we will help in the expenses. Great job, Dr. Bob! You’ve got a right to crow!
Shade the Coffee, Not the Truth
Now comes the harder part. I constantly see coffee company websites extolling the virtues of their “shade grown” coffee, with lyrical descriptions of lush forests, singing birds and smiling farmers. But what the heck does shade grown mean?? None of those websites actually defines it. With good reason, too. Unfortunately, shade grown is akin to the infamous “all natural” that we see all over food products these days. There is no legal definition of all natural, even though recent polls show consumers actually trust that more than they trust certified organic! Great marketing job, oh ye avoiders of the truth! One organization that has tried to define shade cover as part of its certification program is Rainforest Alliance (RA), an organization that started out as a straightforward environmental protection group and has over the years morphed, IMHO, into a more industry friendly certifier, changing the rules every few years to make their system easier for large farms and multinational exporters to embrace with little change to what they have always done (well, some fair trade organizations have gone down the same path). Anyway, RA recently changed its shade criteria, which once was as nearly rigorous as SMBC and has devolved to a pretty meaningless cackle and caw. RA recommends 15% coverage but that can be adjusted for a variety of reasons and doesn’t require native plants. So all of your carbon and bird semi-friendly pines, bananas and eucalyptus trees can be counted in shade. But wait! Can’t meet this criteria? That’s okay, they will certify you anyway if you promise to give them a plan to meet this minimum criterion within six years! So if you buy RA coffee you don’t know if what’s in the bag has lots of shade or hardly any at all (and oh by the way, a roaster need only put thirty percent RA coffee in a bag and still can use the seal, albeit with some explanatory language somewhere). And no shade canopy density, strata, or organic certification. Pretty slim pickin’s for the birds, I’d say.
As a recovering Environmental and Indigenous Rights Lawyer, I take ecology very seriously. We do not buy from farms we don’t actually know personally. We do reforestation (NOT with pine trees) with our farmer partners with native species they have chosen based on their own knowledge. We do say that our farmers are all shade grown because they are either participants in SMBC or we have personal knowledge of the extent of shade cover and species variety on our partners’ farms. Yet I will be the first to admit that’s not scientific and not good enough. So we’ll keep on working on it!