Rainforest Alliance certified coffee: useless to evaluate shade-grown conditions

by JulieCraves on December 11, 2018

The criteria regarding shade cover for Rainforest Alliance certified coffee farms has eroded to the point that this certification can no longer be considered an assurance that coffee was grown on a farm that has habitat for birds or other wildlife.

I’ve written many posts that outline the changes in the “standard,” or criteria that must be met for Rainforest Alliance certification. They include not only changes to the criteria themselves, but also which ones must be met for certification and how they are judged or scored. I encourage you to read through the following posts, because they offer a great deal of detail:

We are on the cusp of yet another change – and erosion – in the standard. In 2017, Rainforest Alliance announced they would merge with Utz (another certification), retain the Rainforest Alliance name, and develop a new standard. The first draft has now been released and the “shade criteria” is even more anemic, which I did not think possible for a certification that touts itself as protecting wildlife habitat. I focus on the shade criteria because it is very important for coffee farms, especially as it relates to birds. Importantly, this is the criteria many people have in mind when they are looking for “shade coffee” that is eco-friendly and provides habitat for birds and other biodiversity. Bear in mind there are related criteria, requirements, and “scoring” methods that have also undergone major changes (often not for the better, in my opinion).

Again, the posts listed above will provide much more detail; here are the most relevant shade/canopy/vegetation requirements over time. I’ve indicated changes I think are especially important in brackets.


Farms located in areas where the original natural vegetative cover is forest must establish and maintain, as part of the conservation program, permanent shade distributed homogenously throughout the plantations; the shade must meet the following requirements:

a. A minimum of 70 individual trees per hectare that must include at least 12 native species per hectare.
b. A shade density of at least 40% at all times.
c. The tree crowns must comprise at least two strata or stories.

A farm without shade can be certified once it has a shade establishment or expansion plan and shade established in at least 25% of the production area. Shade must be established in the remaining 75% of the production area within five years. Farms in areas where the original natural vegetation is not forest must dedicate at least 30% of the farm area for conservation or recovery of the area’s typical ecosystems. These farms can be certified once they have a plan to establishment or recover natural vegetation within ten years. Vegetation must be re-established or recovered in an equivalent of 10% of the total farm area (one-third of the 30%) during the first three years of the plan.


Farms with agroforestry crops located in areas where the original natural vegetative cover is forest must establish and maintain a permanent agroforestry system distributed homogenously throughout the plantations. The agroforestry system’s structure must meet the following requirements:

a. The tree community on the cultivated land consists of minimum 12 native species per hectare on average. [Tree density requirement removed.]
b. The tree canopy comprises at least two strata or stories.
c. The overall canopy density on the cultivated land is at least 40%. [“At all times” removed, indicating pruning can reduce canopy cover part of the year.]

[Substantial changes — reductions — here on what is required for initial certification as well as continued certification.]


Farms with shade-tolerant crops have at least 15% total native vegetation coverage across the farm or groups of farms or a shade canopy fulfilling the SAN canopy cover and species diversity parameters. Farms or groups of farms with non shade-tolerant crops have at least 10% total native vegetation coverage across the farm or groups of farms.

[A radical transformation, more fully explained in this post. In a nutshell, fulfilling this criteria is not required for initial certification (only after 6 years); it does not address shade/canopy cover/density, only native vegetation cover; cover is no longer required to be homogenous; and levels greater than 15% are not required at any point.]

Proposed for 2020

Farms have at least 10% tree canopy coverage across the farm or group of farms, where appropriate in accordance with an agroforestry system that may include: trees in contour hedgerows, trees in strips (corridor system), trees in contiguous area (shade), trees in a mixed system, or trees on plot boundaries.

What 10% versus 40% canopy density looks like, from standard forestry charts (likely similiar to ones used by people that certify these farms!).

Things to know: This is not a core criteria required for certification. The current 2017 standard does include at least a suggestion for 40% shade made up of 12 native tree species per hectare for coffee crops (that’s what the “or a shade canopy fulfilling the SAN canopy cover and species diversity parameters” is all about). That is no longer in the draft document.

In my other posts specifically about shade criteria, as well as in many other posts on eco-friendly coffee growing, I have explained the habitat requirements of birds and wildlife, especially on coffee farms and how various certification criteria impact these needs. As an ornithologist and ecologist for over 25 years, I believe I have a pretty good grasp on these topics. But I don’t think I need to impart my expertise at this point. Most thoughtful people are likely to correctly conclude that 10% tree cover — potentially counted across many farms, without density or structure requirements — is probably not very good wildlife habitat (and certainly not for forest birds). This criteria doesn’t even specify that the cover needs to be over the crop; in fact it specifies that it can be anywhere. By the way, 10% canopy cover over the coffee crop is typically what is considered “sun coffee.”

On their own website, Rainforest Alliance states: “On Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms, coffee grows in harmony with nature: … wildlife thrives and migratory bird habitat flourishes.” This is not an accurate statement under the current standard, and may be even less likely under the proposed standard. Maybe your coffee came from a terrific farm with a diverse, highly structured shade canopy that supports resident and migratory birds and other biodiversity. Or it might come from a farm that has no shade at all over the coffee, or anywhere else on the farm if the certification covers a group of farms and there are some trees on one of the others. There is no consumer-facing transparency about this.

One of the underpinning philosophies for creating certification standards that are process- and progress-oriented (versus benchmark/pass-fail such as Bird-Friendly) is to be more inclusive. I’m all for getting more farmers on the road to good farming practices — it’s vital for their survival. The downside of this low bar is that it leaves the door wide open for greenwashing. Coffee can be Rainforest Alliance certified, implying to most consumers that it is very eco-friendly, when it in fact may be a far cry from being “grown in harmony with nature.”

I’ll repeat what I concluded after the last standard was approved. I believe this weakening of shade requirements devalues science-based shade and biodiversity criteria. If low requirements for shade production become mainstreamed and legitimized, and are seen as the true benchmarks for eco-friendly coffee production, habitat quality and biodiversity will suffer.

Daily Coffee News has a post about the new standard, and you can read (and comment on) the entire draft standard via the links at the Rainforest Alliance website.

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

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