Coffee for the Birds: Q&A with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Robert Rice


In the market for a caffeine fix? As VT mentioned in our May/June issue, picking coffee with the "Bird Friendly" seal ensures your beans grew on an organic farm filled with trees, a woodsy sanctuary for migratory birds and other forest creatures. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which started the certification program in 1998, recently published a review of more than 50 studies confirming even more environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee. (In one study from Nicaragua, sun-grown coffee farms suffered 2.5 times more soil erosion than their shady counterparts.) Below, VT catches up with program director Dr. Robert Rice, who wrote the report on going Bird Friendly.

Q: Traditionally, coffee has been planted under a canopy of trees, allowing the beans to ripen slowly. Why did the open-sun system take off?

A: Some coffee areas changed from a shaded system to sun from about the 1940s onward, due to wanting to increase yields (since growing in sun can produce 2-3 times as much coffee) or, in some cases like Central America, trying to deal with disease, such as coffee leaf rust.

Q: What are the downsides of growing coffee in the sun?

A: Growers who have open-sun production must use relatively high levels of chemical fertilizers to supply nutrients, since not much leaf litter and organic matter is going back into the soil. They also must use lots of herbicides to control weeds, since it’s so open to the sun—a weed-encouraging situation. And, with such a monocultural setting, any pest that comes in, be it insect or fungus, has a veritable buffet presented to it—without the natural enemies like predator or parasitic insects that could otherwise exist in the more diverse shaded system.

Q: What impact have these Bird Friendly findings had on consumers and growers?

A: When people “get it”—that is, the connection between the coffee they drink and the environmental dimensions it has—they often only want to buy Bird Friendly coffee afterward. Growers, of course, have long known the benefits of their shade. In terms of long-time sustainability, those who have maintained their shade are in a better position to have production without the burden of costly agrochemicals and ecological damage.

Visit to find out where you can buy Bird Friendly coffee.