Shade-grown coffee: state of play

The Birding Community E-Bulletin points to two reports: first, a recent summary by Robert Rice of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center on the supply of and market for the SMBC’s branded Bird Friendly® Coffee. It’s interesting that nearly 40% comes from Peru; Mexico and Guatemala are other major producers. On the demand side, nearly 350,000 pounds were consumed in 2008 (the last period for which full-year figures are available), divided almost evenly between Japan and the United States.

Amid the clutter of labelling and badging at the turn of the decade, the SMBC established criteria for coffee agriculture specifically designed to protect bird life, and chose to protect them with a mark. These criteria go beyond relatively simple organic certification. Rice’s precis:

… the coffee is:

  • Certified organic
  • Certified shade-grown (according to SMBC criteria developed in 1997 and based on scientific fieldwork)

Criteria include: a minimum canopy height of 12 meters; a species list of at least 10 trees in addition to the major or “backbone” species; at least 40% foliage density; and three strata or layers of vegetation that provide structural diversity. Criteria apply to the coffee production area itself, and industry and certification specialists consider them to be the strictest shade standards in the world.

Rice states that growers see a 5 to 10 cent per pound premium for meeting BFC standards, in addition to any price bump for being organic.

Unfortunately, as Ezra Fieser reports, that price differential has narrowed over the past few years from a 30-40% markon mid-decade to about 20% now. This trend is driving farmers back to conventional agricultural methods. According to the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education, costs to the organic grower run 15% higher (certification fees, losses to pests), while yields are 40% lower. As my old B school teacher liked to say, “Sell below cost, and in the long run, you’re out of business.”