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In a word, yes. Shade-grown coffee is for the birds — and the bugs, and the animals, and the environment as a whole. The answer is actually a lot more complex than that, though, and it involves knowing exactly what “shade-grown” coffee is, how the term can be deceptive and why it’s important for coffee to grow under a canopy of diverse shade trees and plants.
Shade-grown has become a big buzzword in the specialty coffee industry. It’s used to describe coffee that is grown under a canopy of other trees. In a completely natural world, this wouldn’t even be a designation. It’s how coffee trees normally grow – as part of a diverse verticulture that includes all sorts of plants.
However, in today’s world, most coffee on the market is grown on large estates where the natural vegetation has been stripped. This made perfect sense to coffee growers up until the latter part of the 20th century. Clearing the land meant that there was more room for coffee trees, their cash crop. Trees grown in the sun produce more berries. Growing them in neat rows and pruning them to keep them short and bushy makes it easier to harvest ripe berries. It also made it possible to develop machines that harvest coffee cherries, which in turn made the whole industry more efficient and productive.
Unfortunately, it’s not good for either the coffee or the environment. In their natural environment, coffee trees are part of a complex ecosystem that benefits all of the plants and animals that live and grow around them. The taller trees protect delicate coffee leaves, blossoms and cherries from the harsh rays of the sun. The cherries ripen more slowly, and the extra time allows for a fuller development of flavor. In turn, the coffee trees provide thicker shade to the underbrush around them. Birds, insects and small animals make their homes at all levels of the forest, from the highest canopy to the underbrush. Each of the layers of the canopy supports different animals and insects, and each of the animal and insect species contributes to the overall health of the ecosystem.
Even more importantly, these natural ecosystems contribute to the overall health of the Earth’s environment. Restoring the natural shade canopy — or leaving it alone in the first place — helps offset the increased carbon in the atmosphere. Shade trees preserve biodiversity, reduce soil erosion and provide healthier environments for workers and communities. The full shade canopy provides nesting and resting places for migratory birds, which are vital to the world’s ecology. The improved biological diversity helps restore the damage that centuries of agricultural abuse have caused to the land.
The terms shade-grown and bird-friendly are often used interchangeably, but they’re not exactly synonyms. In fact, bird-friendly coffee can be seen as a subset of shade-grown coffee. In other words, all bird-friendly coffee is grown in the shade, but all shade-grown coffee is not bird-friendly. On some plantations, coffee growers have planted a single species of taller trees to shelter the delicate coffee plants. While this is technically shade-grown coffee — and it provides some of the flavor and quality benefits to the coffee trees — it doesn’t provide the full range of bio-diversity that benefits the entire environment. Bird-friendly coffee is grown in a bio-diverse ecosystem that includes a full canopy and understory where animals and insects can grow and flourish.
The Bird Friendly certification administered by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center is an assurance that the coffee in the package is grown under a diverse shade canopy and is certified organic. The Smithsonian contracts with several certifying organizations, such as Certimex and OCIA International, to inspect and certify coffee estates for the degree of shade provided for growing. Look for the Bird Friendly Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center seal for that assurance.