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Commentary: Coffee with a Conscience

By Christopher Hollister


Buffalo, NY – I have concept that listeners may find intriguing: it's "coffee with a conscience." Hold that thought for a moment. I'll come back to it...

Like the estimated forty million birders in North America, I look forward to this time of the year, in particular, for the return of our Neotropical songbirds. For those unfamiliar, the term "Neotropical songbirds" refers to several families of migratory birds that breed in North America and winter in Latin America. These families of birds include orioles, tanagers, thrushes, vireos, warblers and others.

As much as I enjoy the return of our avian migrants, I am reminded of their troubled state. These birds are experiencing precipitous population declines. Ornithologists estimate that there has been a fifty-percent decline in overall migratory songbird populations during the last forty years. Some species, such as the wood thrush, the Kentucky warbler and the eastern kingbird are disappearing at a frightening rate. Reasons for these declines are manifold; habitat loss and pesticide use are chief among them, though contributing factors also include parasitism, predation, and tall building and tower collisions.

The reasons given for songbird population declines are so broad in scope and enormous in scale that caring citizens might feel helpless to do anything about it. However, there is one simple thing we might do that can have a significant impact, and it is as easy as the choice of our next cup of coffee.

Much of the coffee we drink comes from the nations in Latin America where our Neotropical migrants spend the winter. Songbirds need the tropical forests in this region for food and shelter, but much of that habitat has been cleared to make way for coffee plantations. The story is not all bad; shade-grown coffee plantations are rich in biodiversity and they provide suitable habitat for many species of wintering songbirds. The problem here is that shade coffee is not the norm.

During the 1970s there were government-sponsored initiatives among coffee-producing nations in Latin America to switch from shade-grown to sun-tolerant coffee. This was an overreaction to fears of a fungal disease outbreak. As a result, most coffee plantations switched to sun coffee, and sun coffee plantations are an ecological disaster. Their soils are starved of nutrients that canopy would naturally provide, they suffer from erosion and runoff, they require more use of energy and natural resources--water in particular--and they require heavy pesticide use. Many of the pesticides used on sun coffee farms are highly toxic and have long been banned in the United States.

Although they are not a complete substitute for tropical forest, shade-grown coffee plantations are the next best thing. To the untrained eye, shade coffee farms might simply appear to be areas of tropical forest. They are mini ecosystems that provide surrogate homes for plants and animals that normally inhabit tropical forests, and that includes our wintering songbirds.

Like so many people, I love my coffee, and I ritualistically begin each morning with a cup of it. North Americans drink an estimated 300 million cups of coffee every day, and we import better than 3.3 billion pounds of coffee beans annually. As Bridget Stutchbury writes in her recently published book, Silence of the Songbirds, "Our huge thirst for coffee has fueled the economies and shaped the lands and peoples of Latin America for two hundred years." If we choose wisely, I believe we can also make a difference in the region's ecology. And so I ask my dear listeners to drink coffee with a conscience. For the sake of our songbirds, please choose coffee that comes from shade grown coffee plantations.

Listener-Commentator Christopher Hollister is a librarian at the University at Buffalo and an avid birder.

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