Is coffee sustainable? Just how much do our coffee choices matter in the battle against climate change? From bird-friendly to Fair Trade, here’s what you need to know.
Humans may survive climate change, but if coffee doesn’t make it, too, what’s the point?
If you can imagine starting your day without a proper cuppa, congratulations. Most adult humans can’t. Or, rather, won’t (64 percent, according to the National Coffee Institute).
We’re a coffee culture here in the U.S. and likewise much of the rest of the world. It’s more than just the motivator for the morning-averse; it’s the engine behind the deadline-challenged, the energetic-opposed, the focus-impaired. It’s social, ritual—and for millions of coffee farmers, a way of life.
But if we don’t take climate change action seriously—and soon—we may be battling more than the rising global temperatures. We may be negotiating dwindling coffee rations and dwindling ecosystems that once thrived in the coffee lands.
An estimated 25 million small-scale coffee growers produce the bulk of the global coffee supply. It’s typically hand-picked at the peak of ripeness. Central America, one of the biggest coffee-growing regions, is already battling climate change.
In Nicaragua and Guatemala, droughts in 2016 and 2017 dramatically slowed production. Rain finally came, but the soil was so damaged that entire crops were rendered useless.
A complicated cup
Already operating near poverty levels, a number of Central American farmers and coffee pickers fled the region after the droughts.
For those who stayed, the low yields meant going into debt and shrinking harvests just to keep the farms in business.
According to Columbia University’s Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment , as much as 75 percent of Arabica coffee-growing land across the globe could become unsuitable for growing by 2050. Arabica is the most common coffee species. It grows along the “coffee belt” from Ethiopia and Sumatra to Costa Rica and Colombia.
The fickle coffee bean
Arabica needs to grow at temperatures between 17° and 21°C, typically on mountainside farms at ranges of elevation, from 1,800 to 6,300 feet above sea level. Temperatures are already up 1.5°C in those regions and could go up another 1.3°C in the coming decades.
Unpredictable weather patterns are ideal conditions for a devastating fungus called coffee leaf rust. It can lead to smaller yields, cutting harvests by as much as 80 percent.
The changing climate is threatening yields; it’s also threatening flavor.
“Coffee, like wine, gets some of the complexity of its flavor from slower maturation,” Hanna Neuschwander, director of strategy and communications at World Coffee Research told Fast Company. “That’s probably one of the first things [that climate change] will impact. You can start impacting both flavors and production qualities. Eventually, once it gets super hot enough, you might get to a situation where the plant just can’t even survive anymore.”
Starbucks to the rescue?
The impact won’t happen overnight, say experts like Neuschwander. Regions that can produce more coffee as others start to dry up will do just that. In some places that means yields will increase. But at the same time, some coffee species may become even less available, even going extinct.
“It’s not like we’re not going have any coffee in 2050,” says Neuschwander. “Someone will produce it. But what will it taste like, and how expensive will it be? What’s the ability to retain those more interesting, flavorful, nuanced coffees? I’m not even talking about the $30-a-pound single-origin stuff. I’m talking about the stuff that gets layered into Folgers to make it taste more interesting than just cardboard.”
Coffee chain giant Starbucks is now working to improve conditions for coffee farmers. It’s donating millions of trees as well.
“Twenty million farmers and their families are impacted in coffee-growing regions around the world. And our ambitions are that we’re strengthening the land in which they’re farming, we’re increasing their yield and productivity,” says Michelle Burns, senior vice president of coffee and tea at Starbucks.
“We work hand in hand with farmers in an open-source agronomy environment on the ground, which is really key, because whether we’re buying the coffees or not, we are committed to ensuring that we’re all working together toward the big bold ambition.”
But better coffee bean breeding isn’t a cure-all, warns Kaitlin Cordes, one of the authors of a 2019 Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment report. Like other climate experts, Cordes points to the larger climate crisis and its interconnectedness to all things.
“[W]e won’t be able to breed our way out of all the climate change impacts that will arise,” says Cordes. “In a lot of places where coffee currently is grown, at some point, it seems pretty clear that coffee production will no longer be viable in those places.”
A world without coffee is unbearable for most of us. But what about a world without birds?
For millions, coffee is ritual, peace of mind, quietude. You may also be one of the millions who sits with a warm cup of coffee near a window, or out in the yard in those sleepy, early morning hours, watching the birds as you take those first, precious sips.
But if that cup of coffee isn’t at least shade-grown, you could be sitting there watching birds whose habitat your morning ritual is helping to destroy.
What is shade grown coffee?
For countless millennia, shade-grown coffee was the only coffee. Grown across the humid, hot equatorial regions of the planet, coffee thrived, like most of the world’s botanicals, in the thick rainforests.
Up until the 1970s, virtually all coffee was grown this way because coffee plants historically don’t tolerate direct sunlight well. They thrive instead, like birds, when nestled underneath the diverse canopies of sun-filtering shade trees that allow just enough warmth and light in. There, they produce thick coffee cherries that are handpicked at the peak of ripeness and roasted to perfection, turned into the morning ritual keeping billions of us awake and alert.
But shade-grown coffee does more than produce coffee the way nature intended. It’s vital for the world’s birds, too.
Increasing global demand for coffee drove farmers and scientists to innovate. They were after new varieties that could thrive in direct sunlight so growers could produce more by monocropping the coffee instead of venturing into the forests to cultivate.
By 1972, these new sun-tolerant varieties were being propagated far and wide. Coffee growers could increase production, yields, and profits. They could do it for a fraction of the cost of traditional shade-grown varieties, too. This led to the coffee boom — making it cheap and abundant. Our love for coffee became a full-fledged addiction; we put it in everything from energy bars to ice cream, without a second thought of where it came from.
This was done at the expense of once-thriving forests, with farmers cutting down their shade-providing trees — vital, thriving ecosystems — to make more room for larger coffee plantations. Switching to sun-growing methods also meant the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides monocropping requires.
The economies of scale made coffee more accessible, but it also made coffee more dangerous. From the workers’ rights issues that led in part to the development of Fair Trade certification, to the ongoing deforestation and damage from pesticide use, the true price of that vital cup of coffee has been debated for decades.
Now, in the decades since hybrids first hit the market, more than 60 percent of the six million-plus coffee lands are grown in direct sunlight. These new hybrid sun-tolerant beans that require high levels of chemical support, also lead to increased damage to surrounding ecosystems by way of soil erosion and depletion and water runoff.
Farmers continue to find themselves forced to cut deeper into rainforests to raze more land for coffee plantations. Only the poorest of farmers offer the bigger long-term benefit to the environment by keeping forests intact and agrochemical use to a minimum.
The decline of birds
Both migratory and local birds have specific requirements — perfect temperatures and settings, for example, the balance of ecosystemic ingredients that make life possible. Most can’t thrive in deforested areas. Many birds are also indicator species, highly susceptible to subtle environmental changes such as the introduction of agrochemicals or changes to the soil’s pH.
Decades of forest destruction has thwarted that, leaving the birds in search of new habitats. This is particularly devastating to migratory species that must find new places to nest after often treacherous days-long flights. Timing for these birds is everything so that they can move between breeding ranges and wintering grounds with the seasons.
During a recent “Fresh Air” interview with Dave Davies on NPR, bird expert and author Scott Weidensaul explained how bird populations in the U.S. have declined drastically in the last half-century. More than 25 percent of migratory birds have disappeared since the 1970s, with a number of factors to blame from food and habitat loss to pesticide use and the changing climate.
Bird conservation efforts
“[O]ne could argue that migratory bird conservation is one of the most complex conservation problems in the world,” Weidensaul said.
Cornell University estimates that more than 90 percent of the losses in North America, which totals more than 2.5 billion birds, come from just 12 bird families including sparrows, blackbirds, warblers, and finches.
“All told, the North American bird population is down by 2.9 billion breeding adults, with devastating losses among birds in every biome,” notes Cornell. “Forests alone have lost 1 billion birds. Grassland bird populations collectively have declined by 53 percent, or another 720 million birds.”
A big part of the problem is coffee production. While shade-grown coffee production has increased since the 1990s, it is on the decline compared with conventional coffee production growth in the last three decades. It’s down from 43 percent to 24 percent across the globe.
With forests now dwindling for coffee and other agricultural practices, tens of millions of birds can’t find places to nest, putting them at risk of extinction.
Shade-Grown Bird-Friendly coffee, like Fair-Trade or Organic, has a certification component. It was developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in 1996. It does require organic certification as well, and it also requires growers to adhere to specifications around where the plants are grown and what types of trees surround the coffee shrubs.
It also tastes better. The reason for that is simple: maturation in the forest allows for the flavor to develop naturally. It’s the same reason why the tomato you grow in your garden always tastes better than the mealy supermarket offerings.
But the sweetest taste comes from what Bird-Friendly coffee actually ensures: bird protection. The certification means the coffee-growing area is verified as a sanctuary for both local and migratory bird species. But, surprisingly, most bird-lovers are unaware that a bird-friendly option even exists, according to recent data from Cornell University.
“One of the most significant constraints to purchasing bird-friendly coffee among those surveyed was a lack of awareness,” Alicia Williams, lead author of this study from Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Virginia Tech, said in a statement. “This includes limits on understanding what certifications exist, where to buy bird-friendly coffee, and how coffee production impacts bird habitat.”
The study looked at survey responses from 900 readers who subscribe to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird magazine.
According to the researchers, fewer than 40 percent of the readers had even heard of bird-friendly coffee, but more than 80 percent of the readers had heard of organic or Fair Trade certified; only nine percent of the survey respondents said they regularly purchase bird-friendly coffee.
But for experts like Weidensaul, just like that perfect cup of coffee can change the rest of the day, birds bring hope, even in the midst of habitat loss.
“There is a resiliency there in these birds that I find humbling.” He says it is “awe-inspiring” they are still able to “knit this enormous planet together through their migrations despite everything that we keep throwing at them.”
Where to Find Bird-Friendly Coffee
There’s an easily recognizable Bird-Friendly logo, that, once you see it, you’ll be able to easily spot it again elsewhere. You’re likely to see it alongside other recognizable logos such as the USDA’s certified organic logo, or the Fair-Trade certified logo.
The Smithsonian also offers an interactive map to help users locate bird-friendly coffee sellers near them. Whole Foods Market and Erewhon are also good places to look. There are also options available for purchase online.
Check out the Ethos guide to sustainable coffee brands.