Sustainable coffee is produced on a farm with high biological diversity and low chemical inputs. It conserves resources, protects the environment, produces efficiently, competes commercially, and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
                                                      -- Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, First Sustainable Coffee Congress.

How insightful are impacts attributable to a soon-to-be-modified standard? Has Rainforest Alliance certified most “pre-qualified” farms?

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.  Part 1 examined compliance for coffee farms. Here, I will discuss the studies.

Field studies: based on criteria to be changed this year

Much of the impacts report is based on studies comparing RA certified farms with non-certified farms. For coffee, the report highlighted three studies from Latin America that included 81 RA certified farms. Later in the report, it also cited at least four more studies that included at least 15 more RA certified farms (some only used evaluations of regional vegetation or non-farm-specific metrics). There are 194,356 RA certified coffee farms worldwide.

The studies themselves are interesting. However, they may be largely irrelevant to our understanding of the effectiveness and impact of RA certification for biodiversity measures going forward. That’s because the farms were certified under the current standard, and 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.

So we must take the reports of positive impacts of the stricter current standards with a grain of salt, in light of the changes ahead. This is even more important considering that many of the impacts (on biodiversity-related issues) were modest.

For example, the report noted that one study1 found certified farms had higher tree species diversity than the non-certified farms. The difference was a median of nine species versus six species. These are very low numbers. The standard calls for at least 12 native tree species per hectare for certified farms, so there are either certified farms in this sample that are not meeting that criteria, or there is error in the farmer reporting. Further, another study2 mentioned in the impacts report recommended the criteria should be changed to require at least 10 more native tree species per hectare than the local baseline of highly disturbed areas, since even technified “sun” coffee farms had 35 tree species.

Two other factors dilute the usefulness of using the studies to evalute impacts. First are small sample sizes — both the number of studies and the number of farms within the studies. Second, the time periods covered by the studies are too short to adequately track significant ecological change. The authors of one study3 explictly point out both shortcomings, even though they looked at a period of 9 years.

There are other examples, but given those caveats, I won’t discuss them further. What I will point out is that these studies may hint at the real reason why RA/SAN proposed weakening some of their criteria.

Low hanging fruit

RA has been certifying coffee farms for over 10 years now. The first adopters of certification schemes are usually the farms that already meet all or most of the requirements for certification.

Studies provided in the impact reports verify this. One1 used used farmer surveys and interviews, and noted that more certified farmers protected streambanks with vegetation than farmers that were not certified. However, 70% of the former already did so before certification; this scenario was described for other issues. In another study3, the authors stated “the first cycle of certified farms consisted of those that already had a commitment to environmental and social issues.”

In these cases, it is difficult to attribute positive results on certified farms with the actual certification requirements, as the conditions may have been pre-existing (this is known as self-selection bias). Remaining uncertified farms may not have the resources to invest in the changes that need to occur before they can qualify for certification4. If RA has now certified a large proportion of farms that already met or found it easy to meet their standard, the way to continue the growth of the program may be to lower the requirements.

Parting thoughts

RA has stressed that they believe it is important to bring more producers under the tent of sustainability. I would like to see RA work toward helping their producers reach 100% compliance of all their criteria, rather than having many more farms meet weaker criteria. There are already certifications that fill that role: 4C compliance, followed by UTZ certification. They are the foundations for ethically-acceptable and sustainable coffee production. In other words, the dilution of RA criteria brings them closer to other coffee certification programs with broader and/or weaker standards. Rainforest Alliance should be the next, higher rung in that ladder (which for biodiversity, Smithsonian Bird-Friendly is the top).  I don’t see how this homegenization of standards and “race to the bottom” offers any incentive for serious improvements to exceptional ecological sustainability. Nor do multiple certifications with very similar requirements provide sufficient differentiation in the market to merit higher interest (or prices) from buyers.

More on impact assessments

In these two posts, I have only touched on a couple of the most relevant highlights. I encourage a critical read of the impacts report. It contains a wealth of data and does outline many positive impacts of RA certification, as well as areas that need improvement. I’ll be referring to it in the future, especially when the new version of the SAN/RA standard is published.

As both an ecologist and long-time freelance science writer, I know how difficult it can be to interpret and summarize scientific analyses for public use, and the Rainforest Alliance impacts report is a fine effort. The last decade has seen a proliferation of certification schemes of all types, and there has been a growing effort to develop accurate, efficient, standardized means of assessing their impacts. If you are interested in learning more, here are some resources:

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1Rueda X, Lambin EF. 2013. Responding to globalization: impacts of certification on Colombian small-scale coffee growers. Ecology and Society 18(3):21.

2Komar O. 2012. Are Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee plantations bird-friendly? Final technical report for UNDP/RA/GEF Biodiversity Conservation in Coffee Project. Available from http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/publications/komar-bird-study.

3Hardt E, Borgomeo E, dos Santos RF, Pinto LF, Metzger JP, Sparovek G. 2015. Does certification improve biodiversity conservation in Brazilian coffee farms? Forest Ecology and Management 357: 181–194.

4TechnoServe. 2014. Colombia: A business case for sustainable coffee production (PDF). A report for the Sustainable Coffee Program. 18 pp.

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

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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.

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

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SAN-logoPeriodically, coffee certification standards and criteria undergo a review process, with modifications made if necessary. The standard used to certify Rainforest Alliance coffee (and other RA-certified products) are developed by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN).

The current SAN standard has been undergoing a fairly long review and revision process. Last year in my post The (de)evolution of Rainforest Alliance shade criteria, I outlined the incremental relaxation of the criteria for shade over agroforestry crops — what the public understands to signify “shade-grown coffee.”

In April of last year, I further described the new proposed standard, which no longer requires a shade canopy over coffee or other shade-tolerant crops for initial certification, and after 3 years only requires “trees and natural areas” covering 20% of total land area. This, in addition to the lowering of other criteria related to tree density and composition, seriously undermines the relevance of the Rainforest Alliance seal for consumers looking for “shade coffee” that is eco-friendly to birds and other diversity. Please read the previous post and comments for details.

At that time, the public was urged to comment; I did so, as well as consulting with one of the three major bird conservation organizations that also submitted comments. The compilation of the comments (PDF) shows I was not alone in my dismay at the weakening of the shade standard. Our voices were heard, because this PDF document by SAN summarizing the comments and next steps includes the following section:

ra-shade-comment

This is encouraging — SAN gave the shade tree criterion a second look. The draft the public commented on was version 3.5, and the draft approved last month was reportedly be 4.3. None of the interim drafts were made public (that I know of) and while SAN only stated that the “next standard draft version” would have the shade criterion, we have to assume it will survive through to the the final draft. I’ll be cautiously optimistic that it will also be closer to the current standard, but given the recent trend I don’t want to set my hopes too high. We’ll have to wait and see.

As a result of the comments and additional revisions, the timeline of the whole process was pushed out. The new SAN Sustainable Agriculture Standard will be published in September 2016, and it will be binding for audits on all farms and groups starting July 2017.

Revised on April 12, 2016

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

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mcdonalds-logoI have reported previously on McDonald’s efforts to improve coffee supply chain sustainability, part of a larger effort in overall sustainability. In my post “McDonald’s makes a substantial commitment to coffee sustainability”  I provided an overview of 2013 levels of certified coffee and farmer capacity-building partnerships. I also compared the efforts of this company which derives a relatively small portion of income from coffee to that of JM Smucker (owner of Folgers, among other brands) which makes most of its profit from coffee. I gave a brief recap and update later that year.

In their 2014 Good Business corporate responsibility report, McDonald’s declared an “aspirational” goal (versus a commitment, I suppose) of sourcing 100% of their coffee from third-party verified sustainable sources. As of 2014,

  • 32% of their global coffee (22% in the US) is from sustainable sources, including Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, or Fairtrade certified farms. This is through their network of suppliers, as they do not purchase coffee directly. That is an increase from 2012, when those figures were 25% global, 15% US.
  • 100% of caffeinated coffee is Europe is Rainforest Alliance, UTZ, or Fairtrade certified.
  • 100% of coffee in McDonald’s restaurants in Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand is Rainforest Alliance certified.
  • 100% of espresso in the US and Canada is Rainforest Alliance certified.
  • Their grocery store Espresso Roast McCafe at Home brand is 100% Rainforest Alliance certified. The bagged McCafe coffees in grocery stores are roasted by KraftHeinz.  Kraft went through a series of spin-offs and mergers, and retained some coffee operations and brands, including Maxwell House, Gevalia, and Tassimo.

These are significant efforts for a fast food chain and, as noted in my previous posts, more impressive than some coffee companies. Because McDonald’s buys through suppliers that also serve other companies, pushing the suppliers to source more certified coffees should also have positive spillover effects in the larger market.

 

Posted in Corporate coffee,McDonald's

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