Bird-friendly organic coffee could become the next green trend

ITHACA, N.Y. — Although people around the world still need to eat and drink, producers are trying to be a little more environmentally friendly about it in modern society. Following fair trade and organic policies, the next green trend in coffee could be bird-friendly. This is coffee humans cultivate specifically to maintain bird habitats instead of destroying vegetation birds and other animals rely on. Researchers have identified a key audience who should, in theory, be bursting to try it – bird watchers.

Bird-friendly coffee is shade-grown. This means coffee growers harvest it under the canopy of large trees, similar to how coffee has historically been grown. However, most farms in Central and South America and the Caribbean are converting to full-sun operations. The change leads to crucial bird habitats for migrating and resident bird species continuing to disappear.

“Over recent decades, most of the shade coffee in Latin America has been converted to intensively managed row monocultures devoid of trees or other vegetation,” says Professor Amanda Rodewald from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in a university release. “As a result, many birds cannot find suitable habitats and are left with poor prospects of surviving migration and successfully breeding.”

Are bird watchers practicing what they preach?

The team wanted to find out whether bird-friendly coffee is on the radar of birdwatchers; are they drinking it and if not, why not?

Coffee farm
Coffee pickers head to work on a shade-coffee farm in Antioquia, Colombia.

“We know birdwatchers benefit from having healthy, diverse populations of birds, and they tend to be conservation-minded folks,” adds Dr. Ashley Dayer from Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “My colleagues and I wanted to dig into this key audience to determine their interest in bird-friendly coffee.”

Over the last 50 years, bird populations in North America have dropped by more than a quarter. That’s about 2.9 billion birds. Contributing factors include habitat loss and ecosystems affected by human activity on the landscape.

At the same time, enthusiasm for birdwatching has grown with over 45 million recreational participants in the U.S. alone. Now, researchers are looking into how to mobilize these bird enthusiasts to help limit bird population declines. Purchasing shade-grown coffee is one of seven simple actions that people can take as a step toward returning bird populations to their previous numbers.

“But even simple actions are sometimes not taken by people who you would expect to be on board,” Dr. Dayer explains. “Human behavior is complex — driven by knowledge, attitudes, skills, and many other factors.”

How can bird-friendly coffee take flight?

The research team surveyed more than 900 coffee-drinking birdwatchers to understand bird-friendly coffee behavior among this group of enthusiasts.

“One of the most significant constraints to purchasing bird-friendly coffee among those surveyed was a lack of awareness,” says lead study author Alicia Williams, former research assistant at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Virginia Tech. “This includes limits on understanding what certifications exist, where to buy bird-friendly coffee, and how coffee production impacts bird habitat.”

“I was surprised to see that only 9 percent of those surveyed purchased bird-friendly coffee and less than 40 percent were familiar with it,” Williams continues. “It was also interesting, though not surprising, that a large number of our respondents reported that the flavor or aroma of coffee was an important consideration in their coffee purchases, which could be a useful attribute of bird-friendly coffee to stress going forward.”

The next step to increasing awareness about shade-grown coffee and its potential impact on bird populations may include increased advertising for bird-friendly coffee, more availability of bird-friendly coffee, and collaborations between public-facing conservation organizations and coffee distributors.

The findings appear in the journal People and Nature.

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.