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The Legend of the Beans
Coffee has a long and interesting history. Coffee grown worldwide can trace its heritage back to the ancient forests on the Ethiopian plateau. Coffee trees have grown there for centuries in the Ethiopian highlands, where legend says that the goat herder Kaldi first discovered the magical beans. According to this legend, Kaldi discovered coffee after noticing that the goats in his herd would, upon eating berries from a certain tree, become so energetic that they would not sleep at night.
Kaldi reported this news to the abbot of a local monastery, who took the berries and created a beverage from them. The abbot discovered that this drink kept him alert for the long hours of evening prayer. He shared his discovery with other monks at the monastery, and slowly the news of the energizing beverage began to spread. The news traveled east and coffee reached the Arabian peninsula, where it began a journey which would spread across the world. (1)
The Birds & the Beans: The Song Bird Connection
Across the world, more than 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed each year and global coffee sales top more than $100 billion annually, making it among the most valuable legally traded commodities. Between 14 million and 25 million families are involved in its production, and millions more in the processing, roasting, and selling of coffee. (2) It’s a big business.
But there is a dark side to coffee, one that impacts birds like warblers, orioles, tanagers, wood thrushes, hummingbirds, and other birds who migrate thousands of miles to Latin America for the winter. Coffee farming practices around the globe have eliminated critical habitat for migratory birds and other free-living animals.
In a 2014 study by the University of Texas, a research team summarized that “global coffee distribution patterns and local coffee management practices have exhibited dramatic changes with major implications for ecology.” They reported that land farmed for coffee around the world declined 9% the past 20 years, but the yield increased 36%. Scientists credit the shift to intensive industrial farms that clear lush vegetation and forests to grow beans in full sun, which has caused a corresponding decrease in migratory bird species.
“Few people know how or where their coffee is grown, but would be alarmed if they did,” says Dr. Bridget Stutchbury, Professor of Biology at York University, whom profiled the challenges that migratory birds face in a recent article. “Most of the coffee sold in North America today is grown in the full sun, provides no habitat for wildlife, uses heavy amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, and causes extensive soil erosion in the tropical rainy season.”
Stutchbury has been tracking and studying the wood thrush in particular, a songbird under pressure in North America that winters in Latin America. She considers the wood thrush the ‘canary in the coalmine’ – a songbird that exemplifies the challenges many migratory songbirds face. “This iconic forest bird has lost half its North American population since annual Breeding Bird Survey counts began 50 years ago,” noted Stutchbury, “two major factors are pesticides and tropical deforestation.” (3)
The Shade-Grown Answer
Did you know that coffee comes from a shade-loving shrub that, up until 25 years ago, was only cultivated under a canopy of shade trees? As coffee grew in popularity, full-sun hybrids were developed to allow the creation of massive agribusiness-style plantations. Forests were cleared to make way for full-sun plantations, decimating the environment and migratory bird populations. (4)
Because ecosystem services such as pollination, pest control, climate regulation, and nutrient sequestration are generally greater in shaded coffee farms, you can help migratory birds, the environment, and farmers by buying only organic, fair-trade, shade-grown beans.