At Bowdoin, coffee drinking has come to dictate my schedule like a strict nanny. In the words of T.S. Eliot, "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons."
As a self-proclaimed environmentalist, I am troubled by my (over)consumption of coffee. I hear a lot of bad things about it. I know that very little coffee is actually grown in the United States and that importing it from abroad requires a lot of fossil fuel. I know that the amount of coffee cups Americans use generates tremendous waste. I know that coffee is grown in tropical regions, and there is significant deforestation associated with its cultivation. Therefore, I try to take some "eco-friendly" actions that work to alleviate the negative effects of my addiction.
I bring a travel mug with me to the café and dining halls to decrease my waste. When I go to fill up my mug in the morning, the Bowdoin College Dining Service presents me with three options. On the far left: "Seacoast Dark Roast". On the far right: "gross flavored coffee of the day." In the middle: "Peruvian Fair Trade/Organic." This middle option changes from time to time. Sometimes it's "Guatemalan Fair Trade/Organic." Sometimes it's "Sulawesi Toraja Shade Grown/Bird Friendly." I always choose the middle option. I feel that by making the sustainably labeled choice, I can work to justify my intense coffee consumption.
My friend called me out on my "justified" consumption earlier this year. We were sitting in the dining hall one morning, drinking coffee and cramming for a biology test.
Excitedly on my way to over-caffeination, I told him that the "Bird Friendly" coffee was especially good that morning. This annoyed him. He's a blunt, sensible East Coaster and cut right through to what he sees as my West Coast "bullshit."
"What does bird friendly even mean? How can a coffee be friendly to birds?" he asked. I opened my mouth to give my self-righteous, environmentally conscious explanation, but no words came out. I didn't know how to answer. My environmental justification was pretense.
I sat on a high horse because I took a splash of eco-friendly with my morning coffee. I thought I could drink my coffee and simultaneously be a responsible environmental steward. But when asked to address the reality of my actions, I couldn't even answer what my "good choice" actually meant. I blindly trusted the label to tell me I was making the right decision, because it superficially appeased my conscience. It was glamorous more than anything else.
I didn't want to dive into the mess of what "bird friendly" actually meant because just pulling that lever under the appealing label and filling my cup was so easy. It turns out I knew nothing about the label I trusted to dictate my consumption. It turns out I knew essentially nothing at all. This investigation is my answer to my skeptical friend, and maybe more importantly, to myself.
Most everyone would say they know what coffee looks like. They'd say it's a dark brown bean that you grind up and brew with water. This is kind of true. Coffee isn't actually a "bean" in the conventional sense of the word - it's a seed. It grows on a bush with large, waxy green leaves. This bush grows cherry ("cherry" is never pluralized in the coffee grower's world), tiny red berries that contain seeds, two of them, which are dried and roasted to make coffee as we know it. The ripe coffee cherry supposedly tastes sweet like a watermelon.
The coffee plant requires very specific conditions to grow, and grows best at high elevations in tropical regions. It's the manner in which one grows this humble bush, the coffee plant, which holds so many implications for the environment of the tropics.
"In the time that it takes you to drink your next cup of coffee, acres of tropical forest will be lost. Along with it will go the birds and other wildlife that depend on it." These are the uplifting opening words on the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's (SMBC) website. The SMBC administers the "bird friendly" certification in an effort to provide a kind of "one-size-fits-all" label for the ecologically concerned coffee drinker.
First off, all bird friendly coffee is certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) National Organic Program standards. This means that the coffee was grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge (sewage sludge?), irradiation, prohibited pesticides, or genetic engineering.
Organic certification agencies, which are regulated by the USDA, conduct inspections and certifications before issuing the organic seal of endorsement, as well as follow up investigations to ensure that organic processes continue to follow regulations. These inspections are very strict. One coffee grower in El Salvador tells tale of how an inspector noticed that a neighboring farm raised non-organic cows and insisted that a fence be erected to keep the cows far from the coffee plants.
"Bird Friendly," however, is not just an organic certification. It is a certification that aims to protect native and migratory bird species living in tropical areas.
In a comprehensive report on biodiversity in coffee plantations published by the University of California, scientists observed that biodiversity, or the amount and variety of plant and animal life in a region, is maintained at a higher level in coffee plantations than in other forms of agriculture.
Furthermore, the authors concluded that shade coffee plantations specifically could maintain a species richness in birds that compares well with that of the natural forest habitat. That is, it's possible to have both coffee and birds.
What then, distinguishes a shade coffee plantation from a conventional plantation? The authors of the University of California report define shade-grown coffee as coffee cultivated in the "traditional" style, under a canopy of shade trees.
In the traditional form of coffee cultivation, only the undergrowth is cleared to grow coffee plants, leaving much of the original rainforest canopy intact. This relatively low impact process allows the canopy habitat to maintain the leaves, fruit, and branches—the "structural and floristic complexity" needed to sustain populations of birds, bats, insects, snakes, and monkeys.
The SMBC's Bird Friendly certification aims to maximize this canopy habitat on coffee plantations. To obtain the certification, farmers must maintain a minimum 40 percent shade cover over their coffee and have at least 10 different canopy tree species present. The canopy must be at least 12 meters high. The forest must also have three clear layers of foliage, as it would in the original rainforest setting. This includes the canopy layer, the emergent layer (smaller trees, normally composed of species native to the region), and the understory (in which the coffee is grown). Just as a multi-story apartment can house more families, a multi-layered rainforest can support more types of birds and animals. Lastly, waterways on the plantation should have a five-to-10-meter buffer zone of native vegetation, depending on the size of the feature, in order to reduce erosion and contamination.
But that's not why I chose to drink "Sulawesi Toraja." I chose it because it inhabits the middle spot at the coffee bar, the spot reserved for the sustainable option. I chose it because the words "Shade Grown/Bird Friendly" bring up images of a verdant rainforest, vibrant blue parrots and scarlet macaws flashing through the emerald landscape like firebolts.
At the time, I didn't know that the coffee was bird friendly because it maintains canopy diversity, enforces a minimum amount of shade cover, prohibits chemical use, and regulates the preservation of other elements in the natural ecosystem. I only knew that as a consumer desperately trying to maintain my good conscience, it was what I was supposed to choose. It allowed me to drink my coffee in peace.
There is an old saying "we are what we eat." I'd like to modify this adage to "we are what we consume." Eating is no longer our primary form of consumption. We drink coffee, weight loss shakes, alcohol, smoothies. We wear: Calvin Klein, Polo Ralph Lauren, L.L. Bean, Patagonia, Carhartt, Prada. We drive: Toyota, Ford, Honda, Mercedes, BMW (These names have all become part of our collective vocabulary - Microsoft Word doesn't underline them). We communicate: Blackberries, MacBooks, iPhones. Everywhere we go we are faced with sounds and images and proclamations declaring that by using product X, we will feel Y. We will be a Z kind of person. And we buy into them. Literally.
In the movie Fight Club, perhaps the most famous backlash against consumerism in contemporary cinema, the glorious antihero Tyler Durdan preaches: "You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your f-----g khakis." He yells this to a crowd of toothless and bleeding men who have just had their lives redefined in the process of beating each other to a pulp.
This proclamation hits the average viewer pretty hard as he sits unscathed in front of his television screen. He has not felt a catharsis like the men on the screen have. He realizes that he is restrained by the material. She is the car she drives. He is the contents of his wallet. We are our f-----g khakis. We let our products define who we are—the brands we choose exhibit our self-conception.
We do a lot of mental maneuvering to maintain images of ourselves as "good" people, as "good" consumers. I, then, tried to justify my intense coffee consumption by choosing the Bird Friendly certified option. I saw it as the "right" action, the action that made me the moral consumer and friendly to birds. And as we have seen in the description of the bird friendly certification, people go through a lot of trouble to make sure this certification is actually ecologically sustainable. But what exactly is wrong with conventional coffees?
Professor of History David Carey has spent a lot of time researching what's so wrong with conventional coffee production. A Ph.D. in Latin American Studies and a teacher at the University of Southern Maine, Carey is somewhat of a visionary in his field. He can speak fluent Kaqchikel (pronounced like kah-chee-kell), an indigenous Mayan dialect spoken primarily in what is now central Guatemala. He uses this skill to incorporate oral histories into his research—a reserve of knowledge that until now has been largely overlooked by scholars of Latin American history.
Carey has studied the effects of agrochemicals on rural Guatemalan culture. Fertilizers and pesticides used on large coffee plantations increase total crop yields, and thus increase profit. But once a system becomes accustomed to synthetic stimulants, it becomes dependent on these chemicals as well. What complicates the situation further is that the initial higher yields soon start to decrease, and farmers need to apply more fertilizer to sustain the same yields. A cycle of dependence starts to appear. Carey captured this sentiment in a proverb told to him by Wuqu' Iq', a 69-year-old Mayan farmer:
"You need poison to keep your farm growing/There is no harvest if you do not apply poison,/but there is also much disease in this poison."
It seems a common sentiment among local people that prosperity can only be obtained by massive degradation of the environment and public health. Wuqu' Iq' does not call synthetic fertilizer by its name. He calls it poison.
"Sulawesi Toraja" is not grown in Guatemala, but on Sulawesi, an island in Indonesia. Like Guatemala, though, the island has suffered significant deforestation due to logging, mining and agriculture. A study conducted in 2007 found that as much as 80 percent of Sulawesi's forests are either gone or degraded, including almost all of Sulawesi's lowland rainforests and mangroves.
"Sulawesi Toraja," Bowdoin's coffee from Sulawesi, is the bird friendly option. That means when we choose Sulawesi Toraja, we are actively supporting the preservation of the ecosystem from degradation—assured by the integrity of a carefully certified, well regulated label. In choosing "Sulawesi Toraja," we make the "right" choice for the environment.
On the coffee supplier Seacoast's website, though, "Sulawesi Toraja" is only classified as shade grown. There is no mention of any bird friendly certification. I emailed Seacoast to ask about this contradiction. I asked why the blend was labeled as bird friendly at Bowdoin, but not on the Seacoast website. An uncomfortable knot began to form in my stomach.
Seacoast gave me the mercy of a swift execution. A representative from the company responded the next day, clarifying that "Sulawesi Toraja" is only shade grown. A "coffee broker" had visited the plantation and had said so himself. The Seacoast representative went on to say that because it was shade grown, it was also bird friendly. A few lines later, though, the she seemed to contradict herself by saying "there is also a bird friendly certification, which our Sulawesi does not carry."
The fact of the matter is that "Sulawesi Toraja," the coffee I had hailed as the ecologically sustainable justification for my coffee consumption, had no real guarantee. It was just mislabeled.
Labeling coffee as "shade grown" without the official bird friendly certification is essentially just a rhetorical loophole exploited by coffee suppliers to make their coffee look better. There are four types of shade grown coffee. The type of shade grown coffee that the SMBC certifies as bird friendly is the type that is grown in the "rustic" or "traditional" style, where the canopy forest is essentially left untouched and only the understory is cleared to grow the coffee plants.
Also falling under the "traditional" label is the "traditional polyculture" system, which preserves some of the original canopy, but also incorporates some commercial canopy trees, such as citrus, banana, or avocado. In "commercial polyculture," commercial shade trees are planted instead of relying on the original rainforest canopy for shade. The removal of an entire forest represents the "technical shade" system. Only a few, fast growing tree species are planted in a precise pattern to provide shade for the endless rows of coffee. These last two systems do little to nothing in preserving the original biodiversity of the ecosystem.
Why then did Bowdoin label the coffee as bird friendly when Seacoast clearly markets "Sulawesi Toraja" as only shade grown? I emailed the Dining Service to try to unearth the root of this discrepancy.
Director of Dining Services Mary Lou Kennedy is a pixie-sized woman with a pixie haircut. You could even say that she has kind of played the role of "fairy godmother" at Dining Services in terms of bringing its mission of sustainability to life. She was named Food Service Director Magazine's Food Service Director of the month in April 2009 (yes, this magazine exists), lauded for her successes in establishing two organic gardens, implementing local food into the menus, and keeping a close relationship with students by incorporating student feedback. Kennedy is also the person who replied to my accusatory email.
She first responded by saying what a good relationship Bowdoin has with Seacoast. Seacoast has supplied Bowdoin with energy efficient brewing and grinding equipment as part of their partnership, and the owner of the company visits campus weekly. To my question, she answered "Sulawesi Toraja is a shade grown coffee... we have contacted our vendor to determine whether this particular coffee has been certified 'bird friendly' which is the trademark registered by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center."
So what happens next time I encounter "Sulawesi Toraja" on a groggy morning in the dining hall? As of December, the false bird friendly subtitle is now gone, removed by Mary Lou Kennedy, and the truth will stare me straight in the face: Shade Grown. Period. Will I still drink it? Will I choose it knowing that it could be from a plantation soaked in pesticides and covered by planted shade trees?
I will. I'll drink it because its shade grown label shows an awareness and a desire for change. It represents a step away from conventional coffee cultivation, a realization that the present system is not good. It's not good for the natural environment, or the human environment.
The shade grown label represents that there is a different way to grow coffee, and it's worth pursuing. But there's even more we can do immediately. We can support non-profits like Conservation International that are leading the field of tropical rainforest conservation. We can buy coffee from cooperatives like COCAFCAL, a co-op from Capucas, Honduras that grows organic, fair-trade coffee and will talk to you when you email because they are so excited about the coffee they grow.
They will tell you about the families that grew the beans, and how proud they are that they are pursuing a path different from conventional agriculture. Buying coffee from cooperatives like COCAFCAL completely bypasses the messy and oftentimes misinformed world of environmental marketing.
These labels are how most people learn about conservation when they encounter coffee in supermarkets and coffee shops. I can hope that my support of shade grown coffee will expand its distribution, and more people will ask questions of its meaning. I can hope that Seacoast and Bowdoin will in turn respond to meet the demands of the masses—the confused consumers desperately trying to retain their self-conception as good people.
I have reason to believe that they will. Last semester I talked to a Bowdoin student who graduated two years before I came to the school. She was surprised that I was having an existential crisis over what kind of coffee to drink at the dining hall.
"Wow, when I went to Bowdoin we just had coffee. There was no mention of organic, or fair trade, or bird friendly, or anything!"
Well now Bowdoin definitely carries two of these certifications in their coffee purchases. Now about 1,500 people see these labels every day. Maybe some will wonder what shade grown means, and repeat the first steps of my journey—typing "shade grown coffee" into Google.