Ashley Parkinson is coordinator of Seattle Audubon Society’s Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign, which works to educate retailers and consumers about the benefits of shade-grown coffee.

Monday, 7 Jan 2002

SEATTLE, Wash.

Trust me, if you stand on any street corner in downtown Seattle and turn in a circle, you’ll see no less than four coffee shops — and two of them will probably be Starbucks. Although the notoriously bad Seattle weather could contribute to a culture of caffeine addicts, the phenomenon is hardly unique to the Northwest. From tall double decaf soy lattes to instant Sanka, Americans drink more than 400 million cups of joe per day, or one-third of global consumption. Our predilection makes coffee the second most widely traded commodity on the world market after oil.

Me in the coffee trees.

Photo: Bill Bradlee, Seattle Audubon Society.

Yet despite our booming coffee culture, most Americans will never see a coffee tree, because production is concentrated in the warm climates of the developing world. We are familiar with the dark brown, already-roasted beans, not the unhusked green beans or the red berries clinging to waist-high bushes in Central and South America, Vietnam, and Africa.

American consumers mark the end of a long chain of farmers, importers, roasters, and distributors — 20 million worldwide — that make a living from coffee. Advertising departments might bill it as “the best part of waking up,” but the coffee you drink has serious social and environmental implications half a world away. My job as coordinator of the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign is to get people to understand those implications by familiarizing them with the lengthy chain of events connecting people to coffee, and connecting coffee to the birds that sing outside your window while you drink your morning cup.

The majority of neotropical birds in the Pacific Northwest (and 60 to 80 percent of the birds in eastern U.S. forests and Canada) winter in the mid-elevation forests of Latin America. Many of these forests have been cleared and converted to permanent cropland, and modern, high-tech coffee production is hastening that process. Traditionally, coffee is planted on small farms under the forest canopy, where farmers often grow fruit trees or other supplementary crops alongside the coffee bushes. The flowers and fruits of the shade trees attract omnivorous species like MacGillvray’s Warbler and Orchard Orioles by providing food and protection from predators. Researchers have found a surprising biodiversity of birds, bats, butterflies, ants, amphibians, and orchids in shade coffee plantations.

Under the guidance of international development agencies, including USAID, this pattern began to change in the 1970s, as farmers converted their shade coffee crops to full sun. Coffee yields increase substantially on sun plantations, but the increase comes at a price: The plants need far more chemical inputs — particularly nitrogen fertilizers — and the monocultures increase soil erosion and water pollution. Converting to full sun coffee farming not only destroys habitat for birds, but also reduces options for farmers who are completely dependent on the international price of coffee. Small farmers rely on secondary crops from shade coffee plantations like fruit and wood to help them survive increasingly harsh market conditions. Lately, those conditions have become all but unbearable, as world coffee prices have fallen to all-time lows because of increased production of low-grade beans in Vietnam and other countries. You may be paying $12 for a pound of beans, but the farmers are getting around 50 cents or less for selling the same quantity.

At these prices, small family farms can’t break even. As a result, traditional shade coffee farmers are forced to abandon or sell their farms and more land is being converted to sun plantations. The U.N. World Food Program estimates that 150,000 people have become refugees because of the recent coffee crisis. In an ironic twist, some coffee farmers in Columbia are switching their crops to a different, more valuable commodity (although one that is rarely counted on world markets): coca, the key ingredient in cocaine.

The Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign is one of several organizations in the U.S. trying to influence coffee drinkers to choose sustainably grown coffee. Fair trade, shade-grown, organic coffee is quite a mouthful to ask for when you’re barely awake, which is one of the reasons our campaign focuses on educating retailers as well as consumers. Still, it’s an uphill fight. We concentrate our efforts on the specialty coffee market (those beans sold at high-end stores like Starbucks), but that market represents only about 15 per cent of total coffee consumption.

As I drink my own cup of certified shade-grown coffee, the numbers seem overwhelming:

  • 20 million people employed in the coffee trade
  • 46 cents per pound on the world market
  • Half as many birds migrating to and from North America than in the 1960s
  • 90 percent fewer bird species found on sun coffee farms than on shade farms

Fired up both literally and figuratively by coffee, I pick up the phone and get to work.