Ever since I lived in Africa I have been fascinated with the coffee and chocolate growing economy. It seems so strange to me that chocolate is originally from the new world yet is currently grown primarily in Africa while coffee is originally from Africa and now primarily produced from Central & South America. I'm sure that many of you are familiar by now with Fair Trade coffee and even the occasional Fair Trade chocolate, which are supposed to give the growers a fair price for their products. But do you know about Bird Friendly coffee?
Both chocolate & coffee have some fairly similar growing habits. They both originated as shade loving, under canopy, rain forest plants on their respective continents. They were traditionally grown under the canopies of existing trees whose roots held in the unstable soils and they were pollinated by the insects attracted to these groves of more diverse trees. Sometime in the early 1970's the developed world (read the US & Western Europe) decided that coffee and chocolate should be better grown as corn is grown in Iowa - in orderly rows and as a monoculture. To this end the more sun hardy versions were genetically favored and people were taught to cut down the protective overgrowth which held both the ecological diversity and the stabilization of their soils intact so that they could grow "more" chocolate or coffee.
But the truth is that as this happened a lot of ecological and economical problems started to occur. With the loss of the overgrowth the birds and beneficial insects disappear taking away the pollinators. The plants growing in sunshine developed more bitter alkaloids in their fruits. With the roots of the overgrowth trees gone the soil started to erode: in the Americas this primarily led to landslides and mudslides which occasionally wipe out whole villages, in Africa this primarily led to salinization of the soil and the southern spread of the Sahara. With this new form of agriculture came also the funguses and diseases for the chocolate and coffee trees which were more susceptible growing in more stressed and less ideal conditions. Sun grown coffee & chocolate lead to increased deforestation, to the use of herbicides and pesticides, to an increase in natural disasters as well as a loss of sustainable way of life. In addition the song bird populations here in North America and in Europe started to suffer because they overwinter in these places and there was no place for them to settle and feed.
Song Bird or Bird Friendly coffee comes about as biologists realized the importance of the diversity that comes with the traditional methods of coffee farming. The increase in bird, insect (including butterflies), and tree species and the health of the human and ecological environment that came along with this way of farming. Recently research on chocolate has started to come to the same conclusions, as I long suspected it would (I used to dream that I would do this research but then somehow got enmeshed in the arctic research instead). I hope that someday we can also buy bird friendly chocolate because bird friendly is also people friendly and ensures a better sustainability and future for the people who grown these crops. When I lived in Ghana I was sad to learn that the northern farmers kept losing the ground - they could no longer grow chocolate so far north because of the encroaching Sahara which was encroaching because they had cut down the forests to grow the chocolate, a cycle that is self defeating.
Someday I hope the only chocolate & coffee available to us will be bird friendly (also known as shade grown) and fair trade.
1. From Thanksgiving Coffee which cooperates with the American Birding Association to create Song Bird coffee (http://www.thanksgivingcoffee.com/).
2. Women in Ghana collecting water from a well in the village I lived in, 2000