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Coffee, catbirds and thinking green


WASHINGTON -- Let me confess that I start every day of my life the same way, by turning on my caffeine delivery system and filling my bird feeder. An ideal breakfast for me is coffee with a chaser of chickadees.

It is this dual allegiance to birds and java that brings me to the double trailer located behind an abandoned mansion that looks for all the world like an illegal Caffeine House. While my colleagues are hustling for tickets to the Keystone Kops Impeachment, I have dropped out and dropped in to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to be among my own kind: Those folks who have a connection between birds and coffee.

Coffee without sacrifice

Here, some scientists are figuring out a way to have coffee without sacrificing the Baltimore Orioles -- or the ruby-throated hummingbirds, barn swallows and catbirds. They are behind a movement to get us to drink shade-grown coffee.

The whole thing began in 1990, explains Russ Greenberg, the lanky and bearded ornithologist who runs this center. Congress anted up some money to find out about a decline in the birds that migrate to Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

It turned out that since their old habitat, the forests, were disappearing, coffee plantations were the most hospitable homes for the 150-odd species that migrate. It wasn't the coffee plants that kept the birds alive. They get liftoff unaided by drugs. It's the shade trees that hover over the coffee beans.

But in the effort to get more bean for the buck, or the acre, the big coffee farmers have been moving to sun-grown coffee plants -- what Mr. Greenberg and his ilk like to call "technified" coffee. As the shade trees are cut down, the migratory bird population is put in greater jeopardy.

"We didn't just want to say, 'the migratory birds are declining, the sky is falling'; we wanted to think of something people can do that will have positive results," says Mr. Greenberg. "We thought that people might buy coffee in a way that would help the birds."

With this in mind the Smithsonian folks patented the logo Bird Friendly coffee, held symposiums for the specialty coffee market, have come up with criteria for accrediting shade-grown coffee, and are now on the cusp of new agreements with coffee companies for their environmental seal of approval.

Concept in its infancy

Shade-grown coffee is still in its consciousness-raising infancy, found mainly in pricey organic or gourmet markets. But it may not be long before shade-grown coffee is offered right between the cappuccino and the macchiato.

There is a nice symmetry to all this. North Americans protecting the birds that migrate south, by drinking the coffee that migrates north.

Coffee is our top import right after that other well-known fuel, oil. Our country consumes a third of all the world's coffee.

But Mr. Greenberg -- who reluctantly admits to a three-cups-or-more daily habit -- also describes the push for shade-grown coffee as "a Trojan horse." He says it forces us to think about what goes into the cup -- the land use, the farmers, the environment, "how the world is used for us."

By and large, the shade plantations still belong to the small farmers who could end up with a premium price for being good stewards.

Ideal for green market

In the coffee-craze era, coffee is ideal for green marketing because, as the ornithologist says, "coffee makes more of a statement about you than the banana you eat." Nobody wants a double tall skim latte over the dead body of a hummingbird. The model in the green-marketing world would be as successful as dolphin-free tuna.

I may be a touch reluctant to add politically correct coffee to my grocery list. By the time you finish studying the fat grams, the additives, the employment practices and the government policies of everything you ingest, there's hardly time to watch the impeachment trial.

Come to think of it, that's the good news. As they say, think global, drink local.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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