The Ecological Benefits of Shade-Grown Coffee

The Case for Going Bird Friendly®

By Robert Rice, with assistance from Mauricio Bedoya
Published: September 2010

Executive Summary

The market for organic, shade-grown coffee grown to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's Bird Friendly® criteria reached more than $3.5 million in 2008, averaging a 145% annual increase between 2000 and 2008. About 1,400 growers in 8 countries and more than 45 roasters in the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, and Japan carr Bird Friendly® coffee imported by 16 companies.

However, until today, no one report had collected the wide-ranging benefits of shade-grown coffee production. By reviewing more than 50 studies on shade-grown coffee farms in regions ranging from Central and South America to Indonesia over the past 15 years, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) can now make the case that shade-grown coffee production is the next best thing to a natural forest, and put to rest any arguments about the sustainability of a sun-coffee system.

In study after study, habitat on shade-grown coffee farms outshone sun-grown coffee farms with increased numbers and species of birds as well as and improved bird habitat, soil protection/erosion control, carbon sequestration, natural pest control and improved pollination. While sun-grown systems can have higher yields, the shaded farms easily outperform them in sustainability measurements with the trees providing an array of ecological services that offer both direct and indirect "income/payback" to farmers and the environment.

The "hidden yield" in the shade vs. sun comparison is that of the non-coffee products and opportunities coming from the shaded system. In addition to ecotourism on several shade coffee farms, firewood, fruits, building materials and medicinal plants are all resources harvested to varying degrees by shade coffee farmers and used and/or sold by farmers.

Excitingly, some of the studies in Mexico and Costa Rica were supported with funds from royalties remitted to SMBC by roasters involved in the BF program.. Over the past decade, SMBC has given more than $100,000 to researchers looking into the benefits of shade coffee production and other questions related to migratory birds.

Over 95 percent of BF coffee comes from coffee farms in Central and South America with the remainder coming from Africa. The producers manage more than 12,000 acres (5,000 hectares) of BF area and coffee farms in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, producing more than 6 million pounds of BF coffee in the 2007-2008 harvest year. Peru ranks first in Bird Friendly coffee production (39 percent), and together, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico account for 77 percent of all production.

The Ecological Benefits of Shade Grown Coffee: The Case for Going Bird Friendly

Since the introduction of the shade-grown coffee concept to the industry by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) in 1996 at the First Sustainable Coffee Congress it organized and hosted, the concept of shade-grown coffee has garnered attention from importers and roasters looking to capture segmented markets, particularly in the specialty coffee sector. Many coffee producers, of course, have long known the benefits of shade.

Now consumers can be happy to know that the shade-grown coffee they drink has extensive environmental value. And there is evidence that shade improves the taste.

Below is an overview of the ecological benefits of shade-grown coffee production, the result of a review of more than 50 studies on the subject conducted in many producing countries over the past decade. These agroforestry systems—coffee grown in association with a diversity of trees providing shade as well as ecotourism opportunities and useful products such as firewood, fruits, medicinal plants, and construction materials—act, as the name implies, in many ways as forests.

For example, shade coffee trees provide extensive habitat oftentimes in regions wracked by forest destruction and other landscape transformations harmful to natural ecosystems and their functioning. The forest-like conditions of these systems allow for a wealth of ecological dynamics to occur including increased bird habitat, soil protection/erosion control, carbon sequestration, natural pest control, and improved pollination, making such systems vital for conservation initiatives.

While not all shade coffee farms might meet the SMBC's rigorous Bird Friendly® (BF) criteria (developed in 1997 following the Coffee Congress) for what constitutes quality shade in terms of habitat, scientific field work bolsters the notion that having a mix of trees reaching a specific height and foliage density (see the BF criteria at is a positive land management practice that enhances biodiversity.

It is the high species and structural diversity of these shaded systems that creates the forest-like conditions, resulting in agricultural land use with environmental value. Such farms cannot replace natural forest (many animal species require natural areas). However, they support significant numbers of species, create the conditions for ecological processes, and help to maintain landscapes that would otherwise be much poorer in biodiversity.

Strict comparisons between BF certified and non-certified shade farms are few, so the information in this report comes largely from studies done on farms of varying levels of shade, some of which might well qualify as Bird Friendly. Where contrasts can be made with BF farms specifically, we note that. And given that the BF certification is considered by industry experts to be the most rigorous shade certification, any of the benefits of shade presented here will be enhanced where BF farms are found.

Of course, the benefits of shade-grown coffee production only exist for coffee produced beneath a canopy that truly mimics forest conditions. Over the years, some companies have made claims their coffee is shade-grown but have failed to get it certified to any particular criteria, creating what could be dubious or outright false marketing claims. The only way for consumers to know for sure about the shade claims is to look for the seal from a third party independent body that shows the production meets strict standards. The Bird Friendly® logo is such a seal.

With the US market for Bird Friendly coffee witnessing a hundred-fold increase between 2000 and 2008 (with an average 145 percent annual increase) and amounting to at least $3.5 million in 2008, the studies show that the ecological benefits of shade-grown coffee are just as good as the coffee itself.

Below, we address the benefits of shade-grown coffee in terms of habitat, soil conservation, pest control and pollination, and water, carbon storage, and climate change.

Species Diversity and Habitat:

As a general rule, managing more trees as shade cover in coffee provides better habitat and supports a more diverse wildlife community than managing fewer trees. The few head-to-head comparisons between Bird Friendly (BF) and non-Bird Friendly coffee farms that have been conducted reveal that, for maintaining biodiversity, the BF farms provide a better habitat.

Soil Conservation:

The presence of a tree cover on what are often very steep mountainous landscapes in high-rainfall areas helps stabilize slopes and minimize soil erosion. The tree roots, leafy canopy cover, and leaf litter on the ground all help do this.

Pest Control and Pollination:

A widely accepted ecological concept maintains that diversity creates ecological stability. In lay terms, that means a more bio-diverse system such as a shade-grown coffee farm with many species of plants supports more highly diverse fauna. The various animals—including insects and other arthropods, birds, lizards, and more-form complex and dynamic food webs, an important aspect of the overall ecological workings of a healthy environment. Birds display greater predation on insect larvae in more shaded coffee systems. Insects such as bees help to pollinate trees, flowering plants and coffee, and predators keep insect pests that might otherwise harm production in check.

Even though the shade-grown coffee system is a farmer's managed land, the diversity and complexity of the vegetation creates a setting that mimics many of the physical and ecological characteristics of a natural habitat. Of course, it's not nearly so complex or rich as untouched forests, but for an agricultural land use, it can be impressive when we see what such diversity yields.

Water, Carbon Storage, and Climate Change:

A study based on 7,000 farmers in Mexico and Central America predicts that global warming trends will shrink coffee area by as much as 30% by 2050. Thus, it is important to take action to mitigate human-based activities resulting in climate change. Some of these changes are predicted to occur in areas of high-quality coffee production, like the Veracruz region of Mexico.

The mere biomass associated with the shade tree component of coffee agroforestry systems can easily be seen as a carbon sink, where carbon is bound up in the trunks, limbs, and leaves (above ground biomass) as well as the roots (below ground biomass). As with natural forests, the carbon sequestered within a shade-grown coffee farm's shade trees will be locked up in the wood (as opposed to being in the atmosphere and adding to global warming) until the trees are removed. Moreover, the soil itself incorporates carbon from the organic matter that accumulates and gets broken down over time. The presence of trees in shade-grown coffee farms, then, can help keep carbon out of the atmosphere, as well as act as a possible buffer to future temperature increases brought on by climatic change. In addition, as with natural forests, the presence of trees can help protect water supplies in both quantity and quality.

About Bird Friendly® Coffee

Bird Friendly® Coffee (BFC) carries a seal of approval that assures consumers the coffee has met specific criteria developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC).

Bird Friendly is certified organic coffee produced on farms with a shade cover that provides a substantial and vital habitat for migratory and resident birds in tropical landscapes, which are increasingly threatened by deforestation globally at an unprecedented rate. The Bird Friendly criteria are the world's most stringent standards for shade-grown coffee production. Migratory birds, including the popular Baltimore Oriole, are not only beautiful with vibrant songs, but are integral to tropical and temperate ecosystems alike, providing flower pollination and seed dispersal, among other roles.

Sales of organic, shade-grown coffee grown to the Bird Friendly standards of the National Zoo's Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center rose to nearly $3.5 million in 2008, according to a report by Dr. Robert Rice, a geographer at the SMBC. According to the report, The Global Market for Bird Friendly Coffee: 2008 (the most recent data available), the majority (61 percent) of all Bird Friendly coffee roasted was consumed in the United States, followed by Japan (36 percent) and Canada (3 percent).

More than 95 percent of Bird Friendly coffee comes from coffee farms in Central and South America with the remainder coming from Africa. Some 1,400 producers manage more than 12,000 acres (5,000 hectares) of Bird Friendly area and coffee farms, and they produced more than 6 million pounds of Bird Friendly coffee in the 2007-2008 harvest year. Peru ranks first in Bird Friendly coffee production (39 percent), and together, Peru, Guatemala and Mexico account for 77 percent of all production.

The volume of Bird Friendly coffee sold in the United States between 2000 and 2008 increased more than a hundredfold (averaging a 145 percent annual increase), from fewer than 2,000 pounds to 200,400 pounds. There are 44 roasters in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and Japan that carry Bird Friendly coffee imported by 16 companies.

Since 2003/2004, SMBC has given more than $100,000 in grants to scientists and to efforts aimed at educating the public about the concept of BF coffee. The grants have supported projects researching various aspects of coffee's role in biodiversity maintenance, as well as to studies focusing on birds in cacao systems, vineyards in California and agrofuels in the mid-western region of the US. The program, funded by a pennies-on-the-pound royalty fee sent to SMBC by Bird Friendly roasters, will continue to support work that explores the connections between birds and coffee, as well as research on birds in other managed lands. These remittances paid by forward-looking coffee roasters help to fund scientific work that would otherwise not be done.

"Bird Friendly®" Coffee Criteria at a Glance

Concept Criteria
Height of canopy ≥12 meters for the canopy of the stratum made by the "backbone" species
Foliage cover ≥40%, measured during dry season after pruning
Floristic diversity of trees and wood shrubs ≥10 woody species (in addition to the backbone species). At least 10 of these should represent 1% or more of all individuals sampled, and be dispersed throughout the coffee holding.
Total floristic diversity The sum of all woody and herbaceous species counted in the sampling.
Structural diversity The "architecture" or profile of the coffee farm should show evidence of some layers or strata-preferably three: 1. The layer formed by the backbone species and other trees of that size; 2. The stratum of taller, emergent species, comprised of native trees of the natural forest; 3. The stratum beneath the principal canopy (that of the backbone species), made up of shrubs and small trees or plants, like Musa spp.and citrus. The emergent and understory strata each should ideally account for 20% of the total foliage volume present. The remaining 60% of the foliage volume should be that of the principal canopy (backbone species and trees of the same height as the backbone species).
Leaf litter Should be present; no minimum percentage required, but, together with living ground cover, soil needs protecting (as with organic criteria)
Weeds/herbs/forbs Should be present; no minimum percentage required.
Living fences Where appropriate and feasible, should be present.
Buffer zones along waterways Should exist and be composed of native vegetation. Along streams they should measure ≥5 meters wide (one each side); for rivers they should be ≥10 meters wide.
Visual characterization—"gestalt" Should qualify at least for the category "Traditional polyculture" (the more diverse category of the polyculture systems)
Organic certification Must have current organic certification by a USDA-accredited certification agency.

Bird Friendly® Coffee Roasters





Bird Friendly® Coffee Importers






Bird Friendly® Coffee Certifying Agencies



Costa Rica:





The Netherlands:


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