The world must wake up to sustainable coffee: An interview with Birds and Beans’ David Pritchard
Updated: May 15
When you picture a perfect morning, are the songbirds singing as the steam rises from your coffee? It’s a lovely image but an increasingly rare experience not only because many of us spend our mornings in the concrete jungle of cities but because conventional coffee growing is a major culprit in the global decline of migratory birds.
When David Pritchard learned about the toll sun-grown coffee monocultures were taking on bird habitats over twenty years ago via a CBC radio documentary, he and his partner decided to switch careers and become part of the solution. Toronto-based Birds and Beans was born, buying, roasting, and selling only Bird Friendly Coffee, a certification introduced in the mid 1990s by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Institute. Based on rigorous scientific research, it is awarded only to shade-grown coffee farms that maintain high quality forest canopies supporting bird biodiversity and multiple other social and environmental benefits.
Since its founding, Birds and Beans has successfully grown into a wholesale and consumer-level distributor of delicious, precision-roasted beans that meets a growing demand for specialty coffee. Awareness of the links between coffee, birds, and tropical forests remains low, however, even among birdwatchers as it turns out! Growing that awareness is a big challenge, and one that the Partner Forest Program similarly seeks to overcome as it works with cities to reduce their tropical forest footprint. We sat down with David Pritchard to learn from his business and advocacy experience and to share his insights on what must be done to broaden the movement for truly sustainable coffee.
Could you tell me about the early days in the coffee world for you? Was it just the ecological imperatives of coffee that inspired you at that time, or was it an interest in better taste, too?
DP: It started when my partner and wife and I were both wanting to do something more ecologically sustainable and closer to home. That was a little over 20 years ago. We had recently found out about the Bird Friendly coffee program, and I thought at the time that that was a really good thing. There aren't a lot of products that you can buy that, by buying more of them, you can preserve more native habitats. I mean, it just basically doesn't work that way. There's always compromise. So while Bird Friendly coffee is not quite as good as untouched tropical rainforest, it’s pretty good in terms of the habitat for the number of species that it can support in terms of birds and everything else. And if you get high quality coffee and you roast it properly and you drink it while it's fresh, it's really much better than coffee that's sitting stale on the supermarket shelves for months.
That raises the question, to what extent did the rise of appreciation for better tasting coffee open up opportunities for ecologically better coffee? Or to what extent was the opportunity missed or compromised?
DP: It's an interesting question because, first of all, ecologically responsible coffee does cost more. So you do need to be able to charge more, otherwise the equation doesn't add up. It doesn't have to be a lot more, but you're paying for organic production and you're paying for Bird Friendly certification, and Fair Trade certification—it all adds up. So the way you can justify charging more is by having a better product. ...you feel good about the coffee you're buying, and you're actually getting a better experience when you drink your coffee. That’s definitely part of it.
Now, back in those days, Fair Trade Organic coffee, honestly, wasn't all that good. So we thought that by basically making it better we would be more successful. We weren't the only ones thinking that. So you did begin to get much better coffee. It's pretty much gone now, but there was a little bit of a stigma left over from the Fair Trade Organic coffee that wasn't very good.
Are you getting most of your coffee beans through direct trade? Is this the best way to buy the beans, or is this wishful thinking?
DP: We try to source from the same farms year over year, and we have pretty steady relationships with a lot of them. But we still use importers because the logistics are very difficult. And in fact, these days, it's almost impossible to import anything, unless you have good relationships with logistics providers.
I've done some direct importing and I'll never do it again. It's too complicated. Even if you can fill a container—and we sometimes buy with our colleagues in the States so we can buy three or four containers—doesn't mean you can get them on a boat. The people who do hundreds of containers, with contracts with shipping companies, even they're having trouble these days and that’s their job. So we let them do that.
So the logistics of direct trade are prohibitive for a small roaster to undertake themselves, unless perhaps it’s some very special arrangement. For example, the Woodland Park Zoo’s Tree Kangaroo Conservation program involves a boutique coffee enterprise relying on small planes to get the beans from remote areas of Papua New Guinea. It’s a wonderful program but challenging to scale it.
DP: It’s enormously difficult. By its nature, coffee tends to come from fairly remote spots. You have to get it, then you have to mill it. And everything doesn't always go how you think it's gonna go. So it's much better for us to be able to depend on these logistics guys who know how to do it and who are willing to do it for these types of coffees.
So if we're going to shift demand to more ecologically sound products, what is the role for roaster distributors of a small to medium size?
DP: We're a very unusual company. We basically said, we're going to sell you this Bird Friendly coffee whether you ask for it or not. Most coffee roasters, if their customers are saying, “Oh gee, you really need to get me some Bird Friendly coffee,” they'll root around and try to find some. That’s a pull. But really, because awareness of the program is so low, there’s very little pull. What we’re doing is pushing. We’re trying to stimulate demand: “If you buy from us, this is what you’re going to get.” And we package it in a way that seems to attract enough people that we can make a living at it.
What I think really has to happen, and what we are saying to everyone who will listen, is consumer demand needs to be stimulated. So people need to know this [Bird Friendly coffee] is out there. They need to be asking for it at their coffee roasters, and then their coffee roasters can get it. There's no problem at the moment with the amount of Bird Friendly coffee that is available. Most of it is bought by roasters because it's good. And they sell it as their regular specialty coffee. They don't sell it as Bird Friendly.
So you could be drinking Bird Friendly coffee in a café and not know it, because maybe it’s marketed some other way, as Organic or Fair Trade.
DP: Yes, and the problem with that is that then there is no real incentive to keep the bird friendliness of it. You can cut down some of the trees and still have coffee that is Organic and Fair Trade, but eventually it won't be very bird friendly because there aren't enough trees. So it's important to promote the certification. It costs 10 cents a pound to do it. The roasters can’t say it’s Bird Friendly unless they pay the money. I think more roasters would certainly use it if they didn't have to pay because, you know, it's a bottom line thing. We care about it, so we do.
So you're saying that to get roasters to sell Bird Friendly that maybe we need this certification promoted on billboards or something like that, to light up the consumer demand.
DP: Yeah, if it was on billboards, or if cities—every time they serve coffee at their meetings they could say, “Hey, this is Bird Friendly, and this is why it's important,” even if it was just on a little card. That was the Fair Trade model, and Fair Trade is much better known now, and it's because the social activist community got behind it and, to a certain extent, the labor movement got behind it, and the churches got behind it. They saw it, quite rightly, as something they can do: support fair wages for farmers, which is generally a good thing to do.
But the environmental movement isn't quite so organized. It doesn't quite have the equivalent of churches to buy the coffee, you know what I mean? So asking cities to do it—I think it's a really good idea. The city has a lot of purchasing power. Yet where I live, the city will only ever buy the cheapest thing they can possibly buy. That's their rule, right? So, I just don't know how to get them on board.
Yes, procurement policies and laws exist for good reasons but perhaps are not equipped for addressing some of our current challenges.
DP: Yes, I mean it’s two reasons, and they're good reasons. One is to prevent corruption, and the other one is so that you can justify that you're getting value for the money that you're paying. But the reason commodity coffee is so cheap is that you're not paying the people fairly and you're destroying the environment. You can buy the coffee from a place that is paying the people fairly and not destroying the environment, but that costs more.
But at some point these things—farmer welfare, environmental integrity—they will run into each other, right?
DP: Nobody is really taking a holistic approach. If you talk to the Fair Trade people, they will say, “Well, if you look after the people, they will look after the forest,’ and that's true. But if you talk to the Bird Friendly people, they’ll say, “If there are birds then everybody's going to be doing well,” because they're an indicator species.
It would be nice if someone would take a more holistic approach. I thought 20 years ago that this is what the Rainforest Alliance was trying to do. I think they were. But, in my opinion, they lost their way, because they’ve kept weakening their shade standards so that they can certify more coffee, get the bigger guys on board. Maybe they couldn't get them in the tent in any other way, but it doesn't solve the problem.
So once again, it comes down to the consumers. And I think there's been some progress in that more people are willing to pay more for knowing where their food comes from, how it was grown, where it was grown, who it was grown by, and under what conditions. Those are the people we need to bring in and get them to know about this choice.
There is resonance with the local food movement. It would be great to see Bird Friendly coffee in a community-supported agriculture farm box, for instance.
DP: Sure. We sell to a couple of those kinds of operations, not quite CSAs but local organic food box people here in Toronto. There's Fresh City Farms and there's Mama Earth Organics. So people can get it with their groceries, which is nice because it solves the problem of having to place a separate order and possibly paying shipping charges and things like that.
These sort of alternative distribution methods are part of it. You know, when we first started this company I had a little table at the Dufferin Grove Organic Farmers Market on Thursday afternoons. So throughout the week, we’d get orders and we'd roast if we needed it and then I'd take everything that I hadn't sold and sell it at the market. And it was great. I sold a lot of coffee there. I stopped doing it when we opened our own store because I just didn't have time. But those kinds of alternative distributions are useful in terms of getting the stuff out there. They're hard to manage, of course. They pose their own logistical challenges.
In addition to ordering coffee online, you can also visit Birds and Beans storefront cafe in Etobicoke, ON. For more information about the Partner Forest’s work on coffee, read our backgrounder on conservation coffee and the producer communities we work with here.