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The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.
A few weeks ago, I was picking up a bag of coffee and noticed a new label on it: “Bird Friendly”. Knowing nothing about how coffee could possibly be unfriendly to birds, I was amused. I’ve also seen labels denoting certified organic coffee and fair trade coffee options. Today, I’m going to take a look at the different labels on coffees. What do they mean, is one better for you than the other, is it more expensive, and is it worth an extra cost?
The Environment and Bird Friendly Coffee
Before we discuss this odd-sounding label, let’s go off on a little ecology tangent. A “shade-tolerant” plant or tree is one that can naturally tolerate low levels of light. A true shade-tolerant plant is physically designed for low light conditions, affecting the way it uses energy and absorbs nutrients. (This is a different classification from the plants you’ll see labeled as “low light” in the garden center. Those are technically “shade-loving” or sciophilous plants.)
50 years ago, all coffee varieties were shade-tolerant plants. That’s how coffee is designed to grow, in the shade of high-canopy trees. Ecologically speaking, the soil in shaded areas under a canopy is super nutrient rich, and farming in those areas requires little to no fertilizers or pesticides. The shade-grown coffee grows slowly, maturing in flavor. Coffee connoisseurs say that shade-grown coffee has a better flavor than its full-sun varieties.
In the 1960’s the coffee industry realized that there was a high demand for coffee beans. Scientists designed a full-sun hybrid of the coffee plant that could be grown quickly and in massive quantities in full sun, clear-cut fields with a high yield. Today, 40% of the shaded coffee fields in Mexico alone have been clear-cut and converted to full-sun productions. We could spend a whole day talking about clear cutting and its effects on biodiversity, but let’s just sum it up like this: it’s bad for the environment, and bird populations have taken a serious hit since coffee shifted to a full-sun production.
The “Bird Friendly” logo is designed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). In order to be labeled as bird-friendly, the farm must meet a few qualifications, certified by a third-party inspector:
The coffee must be shade-grown under a canopy of trees in an environment which provides a good, forest-like, complex habitat for birds. (Hence, the “bird friendly” label.) A bird friendly coffee certifies that its habitat will have many different species of healthy trees.
The coffee must be organically grown. No pesticides or chemical fertilizers.
The Farm must donate a portion of sales to the SMBC, $0.25 per pound.
Here’s what I found interesting: there is no other way to certify that a coffee is shade grown. You can find USDA Certified Organic coffee without a bird-friendly label, but you cannot find a certified shade-grown coffee. Only the “bird friendly” logo certifies a coffee is actually shade grown and not full or partial sun.
Costwise, the “bird-friendly”coffees I found at the store (Allegro Coffee found at Whole Foods) were the same price as the regular and organic coffees, $10.99 for a 12 ounce bag. I’m not sure how universally true that is. What have you seen in the store?
Fair Trade Coffee
This label is not new, but it is important to the coffee industry. This label “guarantees farmers a minimum price, and links farmers directly with importers, creating long-term sustainability. Through Fair Trade, farmers earn better incomes, allowing them to hold on to their land and invest in quality.” – Fair Trade USA
The Fair Trade Logo promises that the farmers who grew your coffee were paid a fair price. On the Fair Trade USA site, you can find a list of all the brands that carry fair trade certified coffee. Does choosing fair trade affect your cost as a consumer? For the most part, nope. I compared fair trade and standard trade coffees by Allegro and Starbucks. The Allegro was priced the same as all the other coffees ($10.99/12 ounces). The Starbucks bagged coffees all vary a bit, based on the location and source of the beans use. [They even sell a $50/8 oz bag of coffee beans! Yes. That’s $100/pound.] The fair trade varieties were all comparably priced to the standard (unfair trade?) coffees.
Certified Organic Coffee Beans
Like with other foods, “organic” coffee means that it is grown without the use of chemical pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Unique to coffee, however, is the organic decaffeination process. In conventional coffees, the decaffeinating process involves chemicals (methylene chloride or ethyl acetate). The chemical-free alternative is a Swiss water decaffeination process, which involves only water and no chemical tricks. Swiss water decaf coffees are also available in non-organic versions. But, wait! There’s more! Organic coffee also guarantees that there is no chemical fumigation during or after transport.
To be certified organic, coffee farms must be chemical-free for three full years before earning their label. This is difficult for the farmers, as they are essentially running a more-expensive, organic farm while still only being able to charge for the conventional product. In addition, the cost of organic coffee over it’s conventional version, isn’t much more profitable. Consumers will pay the same or similar price for the organic coffee. This is great for the consumer, but kind of a bummer for the farmers. For these reasons (high investment, low payoff), the growth of organic coffee farms is on a slight decline.
So, is organic coffee a big deal or not? I’m not sure. Farmers can legally spray up to 250 pounds of pesticides per acre. Coffee gets a big dose of pesticide exposure. However, some research shows that the pesticide chemicals may burn off during the roasting process. Likewise, the roasting process may also add more chemical byproducts, but these will dissipate with time and ventilation (4-5 breathing days should do the trick).
Environmentally speaking, organic is definitely, indisputably, hands-down the better option. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers have a pretty nasty effect on the environment. Considering that the US alone imports $4 billion worth of coffee a year, the coffee industry is in the position to have a very serious effect in a very sensitive, biodiverse part of the world.
So where should you spend your money? Organic, bird-friendly, fair trade? Here’s my opinion: if you’re already a coffee drinker, shop around and look at some prices. It’s possible that these options are available for the exact same price of what you’re already paying. In that case, supporting one of these three options can do a lot of good. Personally, I think choosing organic or bird-friendly would have a fantastic impact:
-It would support farmers who have made the investment and commitment to farm without chemicals.
-It would support the farms that are having a positive impact on the environment.
-You won’t be drinking pesticides.
If buying an organic, bird-friendly, or fair trade coffee would cost you an extra $3+ dollars per bag, and if your budget is tight or over-committed, I’d put that extra $3 towards organic meat or dairy. Think about where coffee falls on your priority list, and buy it if you can, but don’t lose sleep over this one.
Saving on Organic Coffee
Being part Cuban, coffee has always been a daily part of life for me. My husband acquired a love of coffee through marriage, and we are both serious coffee drinkers. We started buying organic coffee about a year ago, and I’ve found a couple tips for saving some money.
Amazon Subscribe and Save. You can find TONS of organic, bird-friendly, fair trade coffees on Amazon. The prices are already pretty good, since you typically are buying a bulk package, but you can save an additional 5-15% off through their Subscribe and Save program.
Whole Foods sale. When I’m at Whole Foods, I always check for coffee sales. They usually mark down one variety each week. I’m not talking $0.75 off, more like $2-4 off per bag. I like finding a good coffee deal, and it’s fun to try different varieties.
Go green. You can buy green, unroasted, organic coffee beans for almost half the price of finished beans. (Just like cooking dry beans, the coffee beans nearly double in size during the roasting process.) There are a few different ways to home roast your beans, and although it takes professionals years to master the craft, you can roast a decent bean using a hot air popcorn popper or a stove top popcorn popper. If you’re concerned about the chemical by-products of commercial roasting, home roasting may be a great alternative. And it’s fun!
What are your thoughts about bird-friendly, organic, or fair trade coffee? Where does it fall on your priority list?
If plain coffee isn’t really your thing, maybe you’re more of a Pumpkin Spice Latte person? Next week, we’ll dissect (figuratively) this popular fall beverage to see what’s inside. Then we’ll talk about some fantastic ways to make this tasty drink at home! I’ve pinned a few recipes to try out, and I’m looking forward to my “research” for next week!