Coffee dependency contributes to decline of migratory songbirds

May 24, 1997|By Dennis Shaw

Coffee dependency contributes to decline of migratory songbirds

It used to be, when I got discouraged about the state of the environment, I'd sit down with a fresh cup of coffee, and soon I'd feel better.

But no more, for I've learned that my coffee habit is contributing to the decline of migratory songbirds.

It's enough to drive me to drink. Only I wonder if distilling spirits doesn't also wreak some environmental damage. But I think I can stay sober, for I've also learned that there is hope - organic coffee.

I was lucky enough not to get hooked on coffee until my mid-20s, when I got a job in an office where everyone took a coffee break. I went along with it and got to like the habit.


I never worried much when I read news articles saying coffee was harmful to my health, for if I waited a couple of weeks, I was bound to see another article saying it's OK.

But the environmental bit concerned me. First I read that the white filters used to make drip coffee cause toxins to be released into the environment because they're bleached with chlorine. Still, that was easy to get around, for it's easy to buy brown filters that aren't bleached.

Even those aren't environmentally blameless, because they're use-them-once-and-throw-them-away disposables. I also could buy a permanent metal filter, or a reusable cloth coffee "sack."

The really worrisome part was what I read about growing coffee beans. Once upon a time it wasn't a problem. Natural coffee trees grow in the shaded understory of moist forests in Central and South America. There's plenty of other vegetation all around them to offer food and lodging for migrating birds, such as catbirds and orioles.

But in the 1970s someone developed a new kind of coffee tree that grows in full sunlight. It can produce five times as many beans as the natural type. That's the good part.

The bad part is that it also needs lots of pesticides and fertilizers. Even worse, coffee growers cut down millions of acres of native forests to plant fields and fields of sun-loving coffee trees. This removed all the other vegetation that was good for the birds and other wildlife.

I, and a lot of other folks in the United States, encourage this trend by drinking a lot of coffee. Almost half of all Americans drink coffee, an average of 3.4 cups a day per person. We drink almost one-fifth of the world's total production of coffee.

It takes about 100 coffee beans to make one cup of coffee. One coffee tree produces about 4,000 beans per year, enough to make 40 cups. I probably drink about 1,000 cups a year, so I need about 25 trees to keep me supplied. Multiply that by the number of coffee drinkers in this country, and that's a lot of trees. That's partly why Central America has lost two-thirds of its forests.

Cream, sugar and guilt

After hearing all that, I was considering giving up coffee. Considering it, mind you, not doing it. I was still drinking coffee, but adding a good dose of guilt along with the milk and sugar.

So I was immensely relieved to hear about organic coffee. Essentially, this means coffee grown in the old-fashioned way, in the forest understory. No pesticides, and plenty of shade.

Needless to say, organic coffee costs more. But that might be good, if it helps me reduce the amount I drink. Some people swear organic coffee tastes better, but I don't think I can tell the difference.

Some organic coffee brands plow their profits into rain forest protection programs. But best of all, I know I'm encouraging the production of coffee grown in a way that not only doesn't hurt wildlife, but actually benefits it.

Organic coffee is harder to get. I've been driving down to organic food stores near Washington to get it, though it's also available by mail order.

I'm told Procter and Gamble has started an organic line of coffee called Millstone, but I haven't been able to find it in stores around here yet.

But one way or another, I can get it, and I can sip away without feeling guilty as I watch a Baltimore oriole build its nest in the walnut tree next to my house.

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write to him at What Goes Around, P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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