Who evaluates non-certified shade coffee? Part 2

by JulieCraves on March 26, 2006

In Part 1 of “Who evaluates non-certified shade coffee?” I pointed out that roasters, importers, and retailers of non-certified shade coffee have assorted means of “verifying” that coffee is shade-grown.  These are usually described as farm visits by roasters, importers, brokers, or independent evaluators.  I pointed out that there isn’t much evidence that these evaluators have experience in actually assessing biodiversity, from a scientific viewpoint.

Why is this important? Can people without a biology background make sound assessments of coffee plantations?

The point of encouraging shade management on farms is not just shade, but functioning ecosystems that are as close as is practical to intact forest.  Looking at a farm and seeing lots of birds and trees does not address ecosystem functioning or biodiversity, the real goals of the shade coffee movement.

Agricultural areas share some of the same biological characteristics of urban areas. They are simplified, homogenized “ecosystems” populated with suites of similar, adaptable organisms.  One might find the same number of species of birds (or trees, or ants, or mammals) in a suburban park and an intact forest, and numerically these two plots would have the same species richness or “biodiversity.”

But there is a huge difference in a park in which the bird species are Rock Pigeon, House Sparrow, European Starling, American Robin, and Northern Cardinal and one which has Scarlet Tanager, Acadian Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, Ovenbird, and Black-and-white Warbler.  The latter group is a suite of forest specialists, which would occur at low abundance. In the first group, we have a suite of common generalists. An inexperienced observer might conclude since each plot has 5 species, they are “equal.” In fact, the  person might conclude that the first plot is “better” because of the large number of starlings and House Sparrows!

Biologists take into consideration more than numbers when defining biodiversity, including relative abundance (which takes rareness into account), genetic diversity, the diversity of habitat types within the landscape, and ecosystem health and functioning.

In order to accurately assess the value of a coffee plantation to biodiversity, if that is truly our goal, an evaluator, at a minimum, must be able to be able to identify many of the major tree and bird species of a region, as well as understand their roles in the local ecosystem (is this bird common or rare? does it represent a forest specialist or a generalist? does this tree provide fruit, pollen, or nesting sites?).

So, it’s not enough to recognize trees and birds.  One has to have some sort of idea of what to look for. It would be great if there were a group of independent biologists who were experienced with the differences in regional biodiversity who could go around to farms and assess the growing practices for their value to biodiversity.

Until that happens, consumers must rely on some background information to try to decide which coffees, advertised as shade grown but not certified, might be best for biodiversity.  This information can include:

  • Knowledge of regional growing practices.  Certain countries and regions grow mostly shade coffee.  I’ll be posting information on growing practices in various regions in the future.
  • Knowledge of which farms and cooperatives have been certified.  If these beans are used in blends with beans from non-certified sources, they cannot be labeled certified, as far as I know.  I’ll be posting lists of certified farms and coops, which may be listed as sources by roasters.
  • Knowledge of botanical varieties.  There are two main coffee species, known commonly as arabica and robusta, and robusta is usually grown in the sun.  But even among arabicas, there are varieties that are less sun-tolerant.  I’ll be posting about the characteristics of the botanical types, which are sometimes mentioned by growers.

Needless to say, I’d always recommend buying from roasters that have close relationships with growers; who favor small farms; whose selections are mainly organic (which are usually shade grown, at least to some degree); and who have made an effort to support sustainability via their business practices and associations.

Photo of a coffee farmer in Colombia by Ashley Aull, under a Creative Commons license.

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Revised on October 26, 2010

Posted in Background information,Certifications

Bill Adams January 21, 2007 at 12:41 am

Let me first say bravo for your efforts!!
I am a fanatic advocate of biodiversity and a psychopathic tree-hugger, but I think the 80/20 rule applies here. We can get 80% of the benefits of encouraging consumers to purchase shade-grown coffee with only 20% of the fussing about certifications standards. As things stand now, consumers have lost confidence in the whole thing because of bickering among tree-huggers. When it comes to the marketplace, "keep it simple stupid".

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