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The birds and the beans

Shade-grown coffee supports biodiversity and migratory bird populations – and it’s set to be the next big thing
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Bird & Wild coffee company founder Guy Wilmot

This article first appeared in our International Women’s Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 08 March 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Coffee is a shade-loving plant; away from direct sunlight its maturity is slow, giving complex and delicious flavours time to develop.

While mass-produced sun-grown coffee provides a greater yield it can be much more damaging to the soil, wildlife and farmers.

In a study comparing coffee plantations in Guatemala, overall bird abundance and diversity were 30% greater in shaded farms than in ‘sun farms’.

184 bird species – including 46 migratory bird species – were found on a single shade-grown coffee site in Mexico. In contrast, as few as six to 12 bird species are found in unshaded coffee monocultures.

Thankfully, shade-grown coffee is gaining popularity among ethical shoppers and coffee aficionados who won’t compromise on taste.

‘Shade-grown and bird-friendly coffee is much less known in Europe than in North America, where there is much more awareness of these principles’, explains Bird & Wild coffee company founder Guy Wilmot, ‘but it’s starting to gain traction here, too.’

When Guy launched Bird & Wild with the RSPB in 2017, he brought 10 years’ experience in the coffee industry – spanning everything from importing to roasting and working for a well-known brand.

‘I had stumbled upon the Bird Friendly Certification at a big coffee trade show in America’, Guy tells us. ‘I loved the idea that we could help protect nature and bird life by buying coffee from farmers who wanted to protect biodiversity and make great-tasting coffee at the same time.’

The cost of coffee farming

In nature coffee is a shade-grown plant, yet since the 1970s the majority has been grown on huge tracts of land in monocultures on ‘sun grown’ plantations.

This means that, like wheat or barley, the coffee plants are grown in direct sunlight, which increases the yield and even sometimes allows two harvests a year.

This is great for lowering costs and increasing production, but it has many downsides for the environment.

‘Sun-grown coffee can lead to soil depletion, soil erosion, a fall in soil fertility and an ever-growing need for more fertilisers, since the intense farming saps the natural fertility of the soil’, Guy explains. ‘Since they are monocultures and there is heavy use of pesticides to reduce insect populations – which eat the coffee cherries – there is less habitat for the migrating birds and less food for them to eat, which causes a fall in migrating bird populations.’

Migrating birds, one of the unsung heroes of the environment, perform a crucial role for nature and biodiversity. They rely on their habitat for nesting and a healthy diet rich in insects, and suffer when it is destroyed for monocultures such as coffee.

‘The fact that there is a way for coffee farmers and migrating birds to coexist for the long term makes so much common sense to me’, Guy tells us; ‘it doesn’t have to cost the world.’

Bird Friendly Certification

Bird Friendly Certification, developed by the USA’s Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, is the world’s only 100% Organic and Shade Grown coffee certification.

It guarantees that every bean has been produced organically and under high-quality shade.

Shade-grown coffee is grown under a forest canopy, which provides habitat for birds and protects soil health.

90-120 species of plant and 13-58 species of tree are typically found on a single certified Shade Grown coffee site.

Herb diversity is typically three to four times higher and animal diversity is supported, too; 609 species of insect were found in a Shade Grown coffee site in Mexico and in a Shade Grown study in Indonesia, bee populations increased by 90%.

A Shade Grown Coffee site in India found 28 species of mammals in one site alone.

Typically, soil moisture is 42% lower in unshaded plantations than in shaded plantations and there is significantly less runoff of surface water.

Bird & Wild coffee is certified Bird Friendly and Fairtrade; these standards help farmers charge a higher price for their coffee and support their families.

The certifications work hand in hand to create a coffee that is truly kind to the environment and farmers alike.

Only a limited number of coffee plantations work with Bird Friendly certification, so Bird & Wild coffee changes with the seasons to guarantee supply all year round.

The company was launched with the RSPB charity in order to support bird populations at home in the UK while also helping coffee farmers to protect birds abroad. Since 2017, Bird & Wild has donated over £60,000 to the RSPB.

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