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Cuppa Compassion: Coffee with Heart

With a little knowledge, you can ensure your coffee matches your conscience

All Animals magazine

  • Michelle Riley/The HSUS

by Karen E. Lange

Buying coffee that benefits birds and other wildlife isn’t as simple as looking for the label “shade-grown.” Below is a list of common terms you may see in the stores and online, and what they all mean.

Shade-Grown: This is a description, not an official certification, so it may not actually mean anything. But ideally, coffee bearing this label has been grown on a farm with many other trees that provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. In contrast, starting in the 1980s, forests in some parts of Latin America were cut down to cultivate a new hybrid that grows in full sun. This method is resistant to a disease that once threatened the region’s crop and yields more beans, but it requires lots of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Sun-grown coffee is also widely judged to have an inferior taste compared to traditional shade-grown beans.

Organic: This certification means that coffee is grown without the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Coffee that is certified organic is typically shade-grown. Birds and other predators provide natural pest control and fertilizer, and reduced sunlight discourages the growth of weeds. To be wildlife friendly, coffee must be grown organically.

Fair Trade: This certification means that growers earned a reasonable amount from the sale of the coffee. Coffee grown on farms that provide good wildlife habitat often qualifies as fair trade.

Bird Friendly: This certification, from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC), has the most rigorous wildlife habitat standards; scientists visit the farms and confirm that the beans are cultivated under shade and that the trees are tall enough and from a great enough diversity of species to provide good habitat. All coffee with the SMBC Bird Friendly seal is organic, and a portion of the money funds SMBC research. Unfortunately, coffee with this certification is the hardest to find for sale, and it may or may not be fair trade.
Rainforest Alliance: This certification means that the coffee is grown on farms that meet the Sustainable Agriculture Network’s environmental standards by curbing deforestation, minimizing the use of pesticides and agrochemicals, conserving the soil, and protecting waterways. However, the beans may not be shade-grown—farmers may still be in the process of replanting trees, or they may have set aside forest for protection if the land where they are growing coffee is not suitable for planting trees. In an effort to have the greatest environmental impact and make its coffee available to all consumers, the Rainforest Alliance allows big buyers such as Yuban to market their coffee with the Rainforest Alliance Certified trademark as long as at least 30 percent of the beans come from farms that meet the SAN standards. Rainforest Alliance coffee is not certified fair trade, but according to the Rainforest Alliance’s spokesperson Anna Clark, participating farmers receive decent wages, health care for their families, education for their children, training in farming techniques, and the right to organize.

Country of Origin: Coffee from Costa Rica, Colombia, and other countries that have intensified production of this crop is more likely to be sun-grown in industrial-style plantations, with large inputs of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Coffee from other nations---often ones that are less developed and poorer---is more likely to be shade-grown in a more traditional manner. These countries include Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru. Certified organic beans from these places are likely grown on wildlife-friendly farms.

Nation of origin information can also enable you to purchase coffee that benefits a certain species. For example, the Cerulean warbler, whose numbers have declined more than 70 percent since the late 1960s because of habitat loss, winters in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.

Want to support wildlife, rural farmers, and The HSUS’s animal protection work with your morning brew? Grounds for Change’s Humane Society blend is shade-grown, certified organic, and fair trade. The current Humane Society blend, available in regular and decaf, comes from beans grown in Bolivia and Nicaragua.

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