Mongabay Series: Agroecology
Organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly: coffee comes with a lot of labels these days, certifications that tell the consumer their beans were farmed in a way that supports the people who grow them and the ecosystems that sustain them. And with coffee now growing on more than 1 million square kilometers (386,000 square miles) of agricultural land in some of the most biodiverse regions around the world, these distinctions can mean a lot.
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) runs one such coffee certification program: Smithsonian Bird Friendly. It promotes shade-grown coffee where the canopy has at least 40% foliage consisting of diverse native plants, among other research-based criteria.
A recent study from the SMBC as well as scientists from Colombia and the U.S. examined whether other types of conservation actions would conserve birds as well as or better than their current certification standard.
The researchers found that while growing coffee under the shade of a diverse tree canopy protects more habitat-generalist and nonbreeding birds, setting aside areas of intact forest on or around coffee plantations conserves more forest-specializing and breeding birds. The results have been published in the journal Biological Conservation.
“Having forest on the landscape but also having shade coffee on landscape are complementary approaches to conservation, and you really need both in order to conserve the full community that’s there,” Ruth Bennett, a research ecologist at the SMBC and a co-author of the study, told Mongabay.
While there’s plenty of evidence that shade-grown coffee promotes biodiversity, there’s been some criticism about the inflexibility of the certification, Bennett said. Focusing exclusively on shade-grown coffee leaves no options for farmers who don’t have shade canopies but may be doing other actions that are good for birds, such as protecting and setting aside patches of intact forest on their plantations.
Hearing this criticism, researchers set out to study coffee plantations in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, a region with one of the highest rates of endemic bird species in the world. Here, the mosaic landscape has a mixture of sun coffee, shade coffee, and forest, making it an ideal laboratory for comparing methods and also learning what kinds of birds are conserved with the bird-friendly coffee standard, and what types are excluded from protection.
In each of these landscapes, highly trained ornithologists stood in one location and listened, documenting all of the birds by sound. They repeated this process several times both during the breeding season, when all of the resident tropical birds are finding nests and feeding their babies, and in the non-breeding season, when many migratory birds visit from North America.
“We know that even with the best observers in the world, you’re never going to detect all of the birds that are present at a point,” Bennett said, so they went a step further and used computer models to predict what birds would be present for any combination of habitat variables. They then simulated different landscapes with combinations of shade-grown coffee, intact forest patches, and full sun-grown coffee.
“I really appreciated their inclusion of the hybrid landscape — where shaded coffee is interspersed with forest — as a landscape type,” Stacy Philpott, a professor and director of the Center for Agroecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay in an email. “I hope that more studies can include such simulated and real landscapes to move us away from this false dichotomy created in the land sharing and land sparing debate.”
Overall, the researchers concluded that both strategies — setting aside forest and growing under diverse shade trees — can serve different components of the bird community at different times of the year. “But with both of them together, you really conserve all the birds in the landscape,” Bennett said. Birds, she added, are a really useful indicator for monitoring biodiversity in general, so what’s good for the birds is likely good for many other species.
These findings have direct implications for Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly coffee certification program, which is planning to update the standard using these results. Bennett said they hope greater flexibility in the standard will protect more birds and also incentivize greater participation by farmers and farming cooperatives.
“I think that their recommendations for flexibility in certification are relevant,” Philpott said, “yet clearly there may be bigger issues related to coffee markets, prices, land access and social inequalities that determine conservation outcomes regardless of [which] strategies are pursued and recommended.”
Coffee farms, the paper notes, provide a model system to study wildlife habitat management in agroforestry landscapes. And with nearly 10 million metric tons of coffee consumed annually, coming from an area of farmland that could cover one-tenth of the United States, employing agroforestry methods that combine trees, crops and animals in a way that supports biodiversity, builds soil and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere is an increasingly relevant task.
And for the coffee drinker who wants to support wildlife, Bennett says, Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly coffee is still the “gold standard.” But when that isn’t available, or would generate a heavy carbon footprint in shipping, she recommends organic. “Coffee typically can’t be farmed without shade in an organic system. So, if it’s organic certified, it’s probably got some shade and native vegetation.”
Valente, J. J., Bennett, R. E., Gómez, C., Bayly, N. J., Rice, R. A., Marra, P. P., … & Sillett, T. S. (2022). Land-sparing and land-sharing provide complementary benefits for conserving avian biodiversity in coffee-growing landscapes. Biological Conservation, 270, 109568. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2022.109568
Philpott, S. M., Bichier, P., Rice, R. A., & Greenberg, R. (2007). Field-testing ecological and economic benefits of coffee certification programs. Conservation Biology, 21(4), 975-985. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2007.00728.x
Banner image of a Scarlet tanager, one of the bird species that migrate to Colombia. Photo by Jen Goellnitz via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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