Rainforest Alliance impacts report, Part 1

by JulieCraves on April 15, 2016

Rainforest Alliance (RA) certified coffee conforms to standards and criteria established by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). SAN/RA recently released an impacts report. It summarizes the effects of RA certification on farms, farmers, and the environment worldwide for over 100 agricultural crops, and goes into more depth for several important crops, including coffee. I’ll focus, as usual, on issues surrounding biodiversity and habitat on coffee farms.

The report largely presents impacts evaluated through 1) compliance of a sampling of farms to all criteria at the first and most recent audits, and 2) results of studies comparing certified versus non-certified farms.  Here, I’ll look at the farm compliance for coffee farms.

Compliance reports: Revealing an inconsistency

One portion of the report looked at a sample of 68 Central American RA certified coffee farms  (of their 194,356 certified coffee farms worldwide, or 0.03%) and their level of compliance with criteria over time.

Regarding coffee certifications, Coffee & Conservation has been primarily concerned with criteria defining “shade” because those are the guidelines for canopy cover, vegetation structure, and tree species that promote biodiversity-friendly conditions.  In the RA standard, it is Criterion 2.8.

Thus, the most revealing and important fact in the report regarding compliance comes on page 40: “At the initial audit, about 70 percent of certified operations conformed to the requirements of Criterion 2.8 to maintain a diversified shade canopy with at least 12 species per hectare, 40 percent canopy coverage, and two vertical strata.”

Note that this refers to the current shade criterion, but the new standard that is to be published in July is likely to be weaker when it comes to tree and shade requirements.  You can read about the relaxing of these criteria over the years at this post, and the even more lax criteria that were proposed for the new standard here.

The Rainforest Alliance impacts report says 82% of coffee farms comply with current shade requirements. Yet they have said that most farms do not fully implement these requirements, and that’s why they proposed weakening this criterion. The level of conformance increased to 82% by the last (most recent) audit performed. The report goes on to state, “These results indicate the role of SAN/Rainforest Alliance certification in promoting shade-grown coffee and diversified agroecosystems, which can provide substantial value for biodiversity.”

Seventy to 82% compliance is certainly substantial. Yet in response to my post regarding the weakening of Criterion 2.8 for coffee farms, a Rainforest Alliance representative stated: “The current criterion 2.8 has not been implemented fully by farms and hence has not been effective in terms of delivering the objective of providing an agroforestry framework that balances both ecosystem services of trees with profitable production scenarios.” A similar statement was made in a document supporting the proposed change, which noted this criterion had proved “impracticable for many producers.”

RA/SAN seem to be contradicting themselves. While the impacts report doesn’t say that the farms examined are representative of all farms, or even Central American farms, RA chose to feature them, implying that they are representative, that the shade requirements are being implemented by a sizable majority of producers, and clearly stating that this indicates the value of RA certification to biodiversity.

Yet to justify lowering the shade requirements in the next version of the standard, RA says that farms are not fully implementing the criterion and it has not been effective. Perhaps the real clue is that RA claims the level of shade now required doesn’t result in “profitable production scenarios.”

However, RA boasts that certification for coffee farms increases income, yield, opens new markets, and provides other economic benefits. In the impacts report, three studies are cited that found revenue was higher on RA certified coffee farms versus non-certified farms.

Is the high compliance presented in the impacts report truly representative? If not, why use it to support a statement that says certification is valuable to biodiversity? If so, why lower the requirements? Are farms that implement the shade requirements really less profitable? If  so, is that due to shade requirements? If not, why lower the criteria?

I think that the high level of compliance with the shade and other biodiversity and environmental criteria as well as the positive economic impacts outlined in the report (which, despite my criticisms, I believe are both considerable and meaningful) demonstrate that RA certification is both achievable, profitable, and beneficial to the environment … at least for the currently certified farms.  The studies reviewed in the impacts report suggest some of the real motivation behind the proposed weakening of some criteria. This will be examined in Part 2.

Revised on December 11, 2018

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

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