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Shade Grown Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Bird Friendly, Researchers Find

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In coffee, the ongoing assumption is that the term “shade-grown” connotes increased biodiversity and some amount of bird friendliness.

Yet as the local environmental effects of coffee-driven deforestation and agroforestry become better understood, researchers from the University of Delaware have concluded that the kind of trees make a significant difference in migratory bird friendliness.

University of Delaware Professor of Entomology Doug Tallamy went so far as to call coffee farms with large amounts of land devoted to non-native plants and trees “a real scourge” diversity-wise, according to the university’s news service.

Published in the journal “Biotropica,” the report involved collaborative research with Robert Rice of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which runs the Bird Friendly Coffee certification program. It found that among 22 tree species on coffee farms in Colombia and Nicaragua, bird foraging activity was found to be exponentially higher when native trees and plants, such as legumes, were in place.

Conversely, trees that smallholder coffee farmers often turn to augment food production or farm profit — such as citrus crop trees, eucalyptus trees or other trees for lumber — were found to result in reduced bird foraging activity.

The university’s news service suggests such “shade-grown” but not native systems are just as bad from a biodiversity perspective as full-sun growth that is generally considered to result in increased yields in the short term while also being unsustainable in the long term due to soil erosion and other environmental degradations.

“Farmers often select tree species that are beneficial to them and produce other products to sell in addition to coffee,” former UD graduate student Desirée Narango said. “Some farms might prioritize walnut trees because they produce lumber or mango trees to produce fruit. There are so many choices. The goal of this project was to get more information to help farmers make that decision.”

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Added Tallamy, “The public reads shade-coffee and thinks it’s automatically bird friendly. That’s not necessarily the case… But the growers don’t know. It’s not that they are trying to pull a fast one. They think insects are everywhere. They don’t know that the type of plant matters, so of course they use the plant that produces the highest amount of income. We can now correct that misinformation.”

Crops such as citrus or avocado — while not native to many coffeelands — have long been championed by researchers and NGOs alike as viable solutions for greater farmer income potential, reduced risk through crop diversity and increased food security.

The bad news this study delivers to farmers, of course, is that in order to achieve bird friendly certification — and, in theory, receive some of the premiums associated with it — the choice would be to eliminate or avoid such important cash crops.

Fortunately, there is also some relatively new, albeit indefinite, evidence to suggest that coffee grown under any kind of shade can increase farmers’ profits. Another bit of research draws an even harder line, suggesting shade-grown coffee must go mainstream for the survival of the industry itself.

For more information, read the full study (purchase or subscription required), or visit the U of D news service.

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