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Tuesday, August 3, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Starbucks Will Offer `Bird-Friendly' Brand Of Coffee -- The Pricier Shade-Grown `Green' Beans Help Preserve The Rain Forest

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

In a move that caters to environmentalists and politically correct consumers, Starbucks next week will market a brand of coffee designed to appeal to the public's taste buds and its virtues.

The coffee, called Shade Grown Mexico, will be promoted as a way to preserve the rain forest and protect the myriad species that live there. While shade-grown coffee eliminates underbrush, it spares the tree canopy of the rain forest.

"We think it's fair to say that if people like birds, they should be drinking shade-grown coffee," said Russell Greenberg, director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Environmental activists hope the move by the Seattle-based coffee giant, the world's leading retailer of specialty coffee, will encourage other coffee suppliers to switch to shade-grown beans.

About 1 percent of the world's coffee, or 1 million bags weighing 132 pounds each, is believed to be shade grown.

If consumer support is strong enough, it could force the coffee industry to adopt a uniform standard for beans marketed as shade grown. Such a "green" label could mean a premium price for coffee beans.

Shade Grown Mexico will be sold for $12.95 a pound in Starbucks' North American stores, making it one of the company's more expensive brands. The company would not disclose how many pounds it purchased, but said the product should be available for at least two months.

The beans for Shade Grown Mexico came out of a partnership between Starbucks and Conservation International (CI), a worldwide activist group that promotes preservation of the rain forest. The beans are grown in the El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico, home of the last remaining rain forest in southern Mexico.

The reserve is home to 240 bird species, including the endangered quetzal, 45 reptiles and 30 mammal species, including jaguar, ocelot and white-tailed deer. CI ranks it as one of 25 biodiversity "hot spots" in the world - patches of land that are home to more than 60 percent of the world's land-based species.

These hot spots are also among the world's primary coffee-production areas.

Coffee is the world's second-largest agricultural commodity and fuels a $9 billion industry. Until the 1950s, coffee beans cultivated in Latin America typically were grown in the shade of larger trees.

But in the 1970s, prompted by a disease scare and the development of a high-yielding hybrid of coffee bush, farmers began seeking open space for their crops. The sun-loving bushes required chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Backed by the U.S. Agency for International Development, growers were encouraged to switch to sun-lit plantations that could yield three times the coffee crop.

In the past decade, according to CI, 40 percent of forests in Mexico, Colombia, Central America and the Caribbean were plowed under to grow sun coffee.

But in the early 1990s, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center reported declines in the numbers of North American birds that migrated to tropical areas. Researchers found that 33 percent of migratory birds that breed in the United States winter in coffee-growing areas of Latin America.

"We don't know for sure the decline is due to the conversion to sun farms," said Greenberg, the center's director. "But we know from basic principle that sun-coffee farms are virtually a biological desert."

In 1996, Smithsonian researchers began encouraging the coffee industry to support growers who harvested shade-grown crops.

The interest in shade-grown coffee came as specialty-coffee growers tapped into a politically sensitive consumption boom. Distinguishing a brand from a vast field of blends was crucial to garnering a market share.

Coffee growers mimicked the ways of wineries, touting both planting regions and growing methods, according to David Griswold, a coffee importer and chairman of the environmental committee of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Within the specialty-coffee industry - about 30 percent of the overall industry - the largest growing segment is organically grown coffee, grown free of pesticides, Griswold said.

If a coffee is certified as organic, the consumer is assured of the origins of the beans and the grower is guaranteed a premium price. Earlier this year, that premium stood 35 cents above the $1-per-pound market price, said Glenn Prickett, a CI vice president.

Greenberg said the industry now needs a similar system to certify shade-grown coffee.

The Songbird Foundation, a consumer-awareness group based on Vashon Island, said it counts only three brands of coffee, all distributed by small specialty companies, as 100 percent shade-grown. The group said that another 18 coffees are grown organically and that most organic coffee is grown in the shade.

The Songbird Foundation has been campaigning for two years to increase consumer awareness of "bird-friendly" coffee. Led by local songwriter Danny O'Keefe, the foundation has attracted the support of singers Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, who raised $100,000 for the cause through a benefit concert.

As part of its partnership with Conservation International, Starbucks donated $50,000 to advance water and soil conservation, and chemical fertilizer and pesticide reduction.

The partnership, which began in January, taps into growing consumer demands for eco-friendly, or "green" products. Customers and activists had urged the company to offer a shade-grown brand, but Starbucks had said it could not find adequate volumes of good coffee.

"We didn't know we'd be able to find such high-quality coffee so quickly. We're thrilled," said Sue Mecklenburg, director of environmental and community affairs for Starbucks.

Florangela Davila's phone message number is 206-464-2916. Her e-mail address is fdavila@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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