Madeleine is co-owner and co-founder of Birds and Beans Inc. Her main interest is to face our collective impact on lives around us, human and non-human, and then to make conscious personal choices. For Madeleine, coffee is about: simple pleasures, sustainability issues, local community, global supply chains, quality, science, art, social justice, and pretty much everything else with a few degrees of separation. She has a degree in applied mathematics/physics (special honours, with distinction) and before founding Birds and Beans, was a consultant in information technology for 20 years specializing in object oriented modeling.
We’ve been tasting a lot of coffee in the past week or two. We have a a couple new crops coming online. When the crop year changes, we need to adjust our roast profiles for the annual variation of characteristics. We roast and compare new crop to old crop on the same profile, and we tweak profiles until we arrive at a cup that we settle on for production.
Randy and I have been enjoying coffee tasting together for over 6 years. We have formalized the process, but we don’t call it “cupping” because, for really good reasons, we don’t follow the that process. Instead we developed our own tasting protocol that helps us explore our experience. Here are some of our interesting findings.
Tasting is Perception
Over the years we have noticed that I frequently identify almond in the coffee while Randy identifies vanilla, or I find basmati and Randy finds coconut. When mentioned each of us can see the other.
It is not being suggestible, it is a change in perception. Like when looking at the “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” cartoon and it suddenly changes from the young woman to the old woman and back.
Tasting is like that. By changing perception, the same characteristics in the cup might present a different picture.
The straws at Birds and Beans Café are biodegradable. We do not offer anything in single use plastic … including water. Our single use cups, lids, straws and cutlery are all biodegradable.
We pay several times more for our biodegradable straws than we would for plastic straws. For us plastic straws are not an option.
The real price of plastic straws is not in the sticker price. No-one in the supply chain, including the end user, pays the real price for single use plastics. Instead, the enormous price is paid in the suffering of the worlds creatures and in the ever increasing stresses borne by the web of life.
While writing this, I reread this throwback to 2012 when I banished the last plastic from our offerings.
At Birds and Beans, we incur the higher cost for a biodegradable straw, which is, in my assessment, much better value.
Birds and Beans was conceived as an expression of our personal values. In founding Birds and Beans, David and I decided that we would buck the most powerful trend in the current culture – the one that dictates that we must maximize monetary return at the cost of everything else.
By contrast, we steadfastly defend the values of product quality, ecological sustainability and quality of life, despite a lower financial return. Yes, that’s right. We dare to put our values before money: we value our values! And it is a real financial investment.
We continuously strive to expand our understanding of the impact of human activity, and we use our choices to withdraw our support from those conventional processes that have monstrous consequences1. Instead, we throw our support behind processes and supply chains that are aligned with our values. Conventional suppliers may not miss our business, but alternate suppliers do feel our support!
We know that many of you look for meaningful opportunities to express your values, and we hope you will engage with us in our endeavor.
Our values express themselves in everything we do, including:
We choose to operate a business that is mission based and we accept the enormous increase in complexity that this requires.
We reach out directly to our heroic growers who are on the front lines in defense of the remaining forests in coffee growing regions. We support them with prices that sustain them and their families. We form and nurture long term relationships with them. They are secure in future sales from us, and we depend on them for our ongoing supply of their meticulously tended coffees.
We celebrate our support of several dozen small suppliers and not of Costco, Sysco, or Gordon even though it results in a tremendous increase in complexity.
Instead of ordering from 1 or 2 suppliers who provide whatever is needed that week, we manage inventory levels from over 30 suppliers, each with different order cycles, balancing minimum order requirements with spoilage, and delivery charges with the cost of product. Each supplier maintains their specific payment and delivery terms. Each supplier has their own shortages, which are much more common from our suppliers than conventional suppliers, because each of them face similar difficulties as do we. All this requires a constant resource stream to monitor and manage.
We do this happily in support of our like-minded suppliers who need our support to maintain and strengthen their part in alternate supply chains. We offer them our support by accepting the inconvenience and complexity and by paying them higher prices.
We do most of our baking in-house from scratch because it is not possible to offer fresh, quality products that embodies our values any other way.
We teach our staff about our values, and we ask them to support them with their best efforts. We offer noticeably higher compensation than most foodservice employers. We meet or exceed all the standards set in Ontario’s Employee Standards Act. We are a team and sustainability must apply to all of us or it isn’t really sustainable, is it?
So that’s it. Could we make more money? Yes. We could drop any one of our commitments and make more money tomorrow. Would we even consider it? No. We are not trying to maximize profit. We are trying to maximize value… and we measure value with more than just money.
Monstrous consequences like the appalling suffering inflicted upon factory farmed animals, the starvation of baby albatrosses whose parents see shiny plastic as fish, the burning of entire forest ecosystems in Indonesia to grow Palm so “big food” can have “cheap” oil.
Warning! These images reflect the consequences of our blind consumerism.
Whether you join us or not, we are not buying anything with palm oil. Because we are not going to feed the monster.
Most of you will not be able to watch this. If you can even bear to scan this article about the film you may be forever changed.
” ‘She has lost everything’: Filmmaker’s heart-wrenching documentary shows tragic final hours of orangutan’s life as her rainforest home is ruthlessly destroyed”
On “Sustainable” Palm Oil, we say NO!
The palm oil industry has taken over the resistance to palm oil claiming that we need palm oil and that it is better to produce it sustainably. I will write a specific rebuttal in the coming weeks. But for now, it is our position that sustainable palm oil is a ruse by “big agriculture” and “big food” to silence opposition and continue business as usual. Their so called certification fails all three tests of a credible certification:
a public standard set to achieve a purpose with monitoring against its effectiveness
chain of custody traceability
verification by an independent third party
It has been 5 years since Birds and Beans Café went completely palm oil free. David and I went palm oil free at home at the same time. So we thought it would be interesting to discuss how its going with us as well as look at what has changed in the industry.
The palm oil problem is the shocking destruction of forests perpetrated in its production. These forests are often taken from indigenous peoples without permission nor compensation and laid waste for all but the gluttonous palm oil industry. Of special notice, is the horrifying pain and suffering faced by displaced animals, most of whom are endangered species. I doubt most readers can tolerate looking at the images.
When David and I came to understand this in 2012, at a visceral level, our resolve kicked in: Under no circumstances will we support this monstrous behavior!
So this is not a crusade, nor do I imagine our stance or communication will make a meaningful impact on the industry. But my body and my soul ache for the pain we inflict, and I will not support it.
At first it was difficult to find products without palm. Palm oil ingredients are UBIQUITOUS! And big food sneaks it into the ingredient lists so we have to learn to recognize it.
Once we understood that “vegetable oil” is a cover for palm oil, we realized that palm is in most processed foods (and most consumer soaps and cleaners). For health reasons we were also motivated to reduce salt and we noticed that most processed foods are loaded with salt (and sugar) too. It was overwhelming! Where to begin!
We took a step at a time approach. We looked at
what we purchased the most
what we didn’t need
We found processed foods that use sunflower, safflower or other explicitly stated oil1. You won’t find these at the 7-11, but most responsible grocery stores have something. We continued item by item.
Over time, perhaps a year, we found we were preparing our own food again. This would have seemed impossible at the beginning of this process, but by changing one thing at a time, it happened on its own. We shifted our shopping from the big grocery retailers to smaller organic grocers. Interestingly, by bringing our food preparation back in-house, we found it was less expensive too!
We noticed that the huge loads of sugar, salt and fats in processed foods dull our flavour pallets, so it took some time for our pallets to recover back to full taste sensitivity. Now, I just cannot eat a conventional tomato… they are bland and pithy.
The food processing industry has convinced us that we need them, but we don’t. The cost of outsourcing our food preparation is extremely high and it does not save as much time as we imagine. We have now established new shopping habits and we support local grocers and organic production. Preparing food has shifted to a shared pleasure followed by the shared delight of real flavours! My fear of living on chickpeas and rice was utterly unfounded…Quite the opposite! That fear was planted by big food to keep me addicted to their low quality, bland, unhealthy food that is engineered to their lowest cost.
And by their lowest cost, I mean the unfathomable cost of the utter destruction of entire ecosystems and the human and animal inhabitants. The cost of life on earth. And the cost of all of us becoming monstrous. Cheap oil? Really?
If you got to here, now you know. You can never go back. What you do now is who you are.
Since banning palm oil from our diet and the café, we have since banned GMO foods. Over 90% of canola oil is GMO, so now it is banned from our diet and the café too.
At Birds and Beans, it is our pleasure and our aspiration to harness all of our resources and efforts to do better. And for us, better means in alignment with our core values: quality of life, sustainability, richness of experience, and community.
We express this in our handmade food: all of our ingredients are 100% GMO free.
Our reasons are simple: Genetically Modified Organisms are developed by “Big Ag” (big agriculture) for “Big Food“. Their only interest is profit. I do not have a problem with profit, I just have a problem when the pursuit of profit is at the expense of all other factors, has negative impacts or risks.
In the case of GMOs, the scientists working for “Big Ag” developed strains of agricultural products like corn and soy, with the sole purpose of withstanding higher applications of agrochemical inputs. It works nicely for them as they both sell the seeds and sell the chemicals.
Nor are GMO crops necessary. Leading expert Pablo Tittonell advocates intensification of agriculture by making optimal use of natural processes and the landscape to meet the worlds growing demand for food. See his TED talk here.
On the GMOs themselves, in matters of unknown and unknowable risk, I am an advocate of the “precautionary principle“. Those who profit the most from GMOs claim that their genetically modified organisms represent incremental change on selective breeding is disingenuous and is intended to deflect scrutiny. The reality is that the risks of this revolutionary technology not understood by policy makers and are generally unaddressed by GMO patent holders. See this insightful article.
Further, the GMOs that “Big Ag” have chosen to produce are motivated by their quest to maximize profits and not by the public good. For those of us who may think that this is a small problem and that most of the food in the food system is not GMO, almost all big food contains GMO ingredients. It has taken considerable effort and focus to ensure no GMO ingredients creep into Birds and Beans.
And Finally, GMO crops have failed to meet their promise. An extensive examination by The New York Times [reveals] genetic modification […] has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.
GMO’s are designed to benefit “Big Ag” profit takers. They have no obvious benefit to the public. They are just not worth the risk.
At Birds and Beans we use 100% of our choices to support our values, and in this case, be assured that no food item prepared in Birds and Beans contains GMO ingredients. We may be a tiny family owned and operated company, and we have no illusions about changing the trajectory of “Big Ag” and “Big Food”, but we do steadfastly oppose the trend through mindful disengagement from “Big Food”.
(Warning…This poem is not for the faint of heart.)
the horror runs through my arms and legs the ache fills my heart the reality fills my mind the finality pulls my gut as the mass extinction ticks onward
largely unacknowledged and unnoticed the tremendous specialty of form and of life unappreciated gasping in the loneliness of last pairings doomed and hopeless
habitat consumed by unsustainable food and junk hopeless and final in a way we do not conceive not just death, but death of species, of kind termination of lines of being the final end of the rise from the muck the endless creation that brought animation to matter the interplay of mutually sustaining diversity the dance of procreation
while we decorate the packaging of our wasteful crap with their images tasting not, feeling not, seeing not, living barely and watch a horror movie to feel something while failing to notice the life that yet is in its intricate and living beauty dying at our hand, utterly squandered
I witness unshrinking open heart experiencing the “Sixth Mass Biological Extinction Event”