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

Rainforest Alliance and UTZ (Certified), two major certifiers of coffee and other products, are merging later this year, and will operate under the Rainforest Alliance name. The current executive director of UTZ, Han de Groot, will head up the new organization. They plan to come out with a new standard, codifying the requirements for certification, in early 2019.

The strengths of UTZ certification are in supply chain traceability and transparency, but overall the environmental criteria are not very specific or quantifiable, and the requirement for shade in coffee is especially loose and subjective.  The standard for Rainforest Alliance certification just underwent a major overhaul that more or less gutted the formerly decent shade requirements for coffee.

Both are process-oriented certifications. That is, certification is granted for farms working towards the criteria in the standard. There is no way to distinguish which or how many of the criteria have been met.

News of the merger didn’t surprise me. In many ways, the standards of the two organizations were becoming more similar, and both have become largely engaged with large coffee and food corporations (which I believe is largely responsible for the downward pressure on the stringency of environmental requirements). Many coffee producers had dual certifications, and this merger will mean they only have to go through one certification process, which is much more efficient and definitely a positive development.

If the new standard contains the best of both current standards (which is hardly a given, considering the simplification and easing of many of the requirements that have taken place over time) I will consider this a solid foundation certification. Currently, the ground floor is occupied by the Baseline Common Code of the Global Coffee Platform (formerly the 4C Code of Conduct), the bare minimum of decent human and environmental practices in coffee production.  If all coffee can instead meet a new, non-waterered-down Rainforest Alliance/UTZ standard, the world will be a better place. But from a habitat and environmental point of view, we will still have a long way to go, as there is a very wide gap between the Rainforest Alliance shade and habitat requirements and those of Bird-Friendly certification. Further, it is not known how requirements for fair prices (such as those in Fairtrade/Fair Trade certification) will be incorporated, as neither RA nor UTZ has any price guarantees built into their current standards.

We will have to see how the new organization develops requirements in the year ahead.

Read more here:

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Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

A short round-up of coffee news.

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Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Coffee news and miscellany

[Update: Newest 2020 standard discussed here.]

[This post also appears at Daily Coffee News]

After many months, the latest revision to Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard, which provides the requirements for Rainforest Alliance certification, have been approved. The 2017 standard will be used for audits beginning in July 2017.

The 2017 standard covers a lot of ground. In addition to various environmental topics, it also addresses management, social, and livelihood aspects (wages, worker rights, etc.). As the standard has gone through periodic updates, it has refined not only individual criterion, but also tweaked the overarching structure and scoring protocols.

My focus here is on the “shade criteria.” These requirements are what many people have in mind when they are looking for “shade coffee” that is eco-friendly and provides habitat for birds and other biodiversity.


The SAN criteria regarding shade for coffee farms has slowly changed in the past decade. A full explanation of these changes is provided in the post The (De)evolution of Rainforest Alliance shade criteria. That post provides a timeline and interpretation of the modifications to the shade criteria. It also introduces and explains the changes proposed for the 2017 standard. A follow-up post (Rainforest Alliance drastically revises shade requirement) describes a revised interim draft of the standard, and a final update briefly outlined the public comments and SAN’s response.

For the most concise before-and-after comparison of the changes in the shade requirements for Rainforest Alliance certification, I provide below the criterion for coffee from the 2005 SAN standard. Note that while this was not a critical (required) criterion, it was worded so that certain conditions were mandatory for initial certification; my emphasis highlights these provisions.

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.

The 2017 standard

The standard lists dozens of critera, broken into four tiers. “Critical” criteria are mandatory. The others are labeled Level C (“good”), B (“better”), or A (“best”) representing increasing levels of sustainablity performance. Farms can be initially certified by meeting all critical criteria plus  50% of the Level C/good criteria. To remain certified, farms have to comply with increasingly higher criteria. By the sixth year of certification, farms must meet all critical criteria, plus 90% of Level C criteria, 90% of Level B criteria, and 50% of Level A criteria.

The standard also has a section of Terms and Definitions. It includes the term “SAN canopy cover and species diversity parameters.” For coffee farms, the definition states there must be 40% minimum canopy cover and a minimum 12 native tree species per hectare. The definition also states that canopy cover is measured when foliage is most dense.

The 2017 “shade” criterion

The criterion covering shade in the 2017 SAN standard is in the topic area “Native Vegetation.”  There are no critical criteria (required for initial certification) in this topic area.

The specific criterion comparable to the 2005 shade criterion is a Level A criterion. It reads as follows (emphasis on section that applies to coffee):

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.

What this means

Specifically for habitat

As noted, this new criterion is Level A — the highest performance level. However, it is less stringent and not as encompassing of ecological requirements in previous standards.

This new criterion does not address shade density/canopy density. It targets 15% native vegetation cover. Ecologically speaking, these terms represent vegetation structure with very different ramifications for habitat quality. Read why this is important here.

Although there is mention of the minimum 40% canopy cover and 12 native tree species per hectare in the criterion, it states that farms can meet those parameters OR have 15% native vegetation cover.

There is no requirement for vegetation to be contiguous (e.g., not in small fragments that have less value to biodiversity), to be part of the coffee production area, or even to be on each individual farm in a group such as a cooperative.

There are no strata requirements. These strata are the various “layers” of trees, seen in the shade diagram here. This type of structure is critical to biodiversity in ecosystems; the more the better.

In practical terms

In general, a product certified under this system represents a product somewhere along the path to sustainability, not a product that has necessarily acheived some specific benchmark. Specifically, as a Level A criterion, the 15% native vegetation cover criterion is not required until the sixth year after initial certification, perhaps longer if other Level A criteria make up the 50% that are needed by that time. Contrast with Smithsonian Bird-Friendly standards, which not only encompass shade canopy density, strata, and organic certification criteria — but all of must be met to certify.

In other words, a coffee farm with less than 15% native vegetation cover could be Rainforest Alliance certified and remain so for years as long as they had a management plan to progressively increase this amount. Levels greater than 15% are not required at any point.

Many Rainforest Alliance certified farms may, in fact, have ecologically-significant shade/canopy density and meet many other biodiversity-enhancing measures. And rarms that have existing agroforestry shade cover are required to retain this shade cover. The problem is that there is no way for the public to differentiate between these types of farms and those that have yet to achieve even the far less valuable 15% vegetation cover benchmark.

Broader ramifications

This lack of transparency to a consumer seeking out “shade coffee” or coffee that is grown using field-tested approaches to maximizing the value of agroforestry to biodiversity is, in my opinion, an enormous problem. It has great potential to erode consumer trust. This seems like an especially treacherous road for an organization such as Rainforest Alliance whose stated mission is conserving biodiversity. It may also be a disservice to other certifications. If Rainforest Alliance certification – with a high public profile and reputation for “saving the rainforest”– does not deliver what consumers thought it did, it may foster distrust in other certifications as well.

The SAN standard overall has committed to encouraging continuous improvement. However, by lowering the bar (again, focusing on “shade”), it can have the effect of removing some incentives to truly improve habitat. The main drivers for farmers to obtain certification is access to buyers/markets, forming long-term supplier relationships, and thus added income. Low barriers to certification means farmers may reap benefits without having fully met the requirements implied to the consumer by the certification. These low barriers can be especially appealing because the benefits can be realized before full investment in upgrading production have taken place.

Lower entry barriers to the “shade coffee” market means coffee quality will span a broader spectrum. The lower sunlight levels of a shade canopy result in physiological changes in the coffee cherry, which can translate into higher cup quality. Since taste is probably the ultimate catalyst for a coffee purchase, diluting the “shade coffee” market with potentially lower quality beans not actually grown under shade may potentially lower market demand for shade coffee.

Finally and perhaps most troubling to me is that this considerable weakening of the 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.

The Sustainable Agriculture Network and Rainforest Alliance have made, and continue to make, great contributions to the environmental and economic sustainability of many agricultural products and producers. Therefore it is with regret that I report that I feel the changes in the new standard regarding shade criteria have negative effects and, due to lack of transparency, I can no longer recommend Rainforest Alliance certified coffee to consumers specifically seeking “shade grown” coffee.


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Revised on July 28, 2020

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

The Power of Organic Coffee

by JulieCraves on December 8, 2016

logo-scaa-chronicleThis article appeared at the SCAA Chronicle, the publication of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, now the Specialty Coffee Association.


Of all the certifications and labeling schemes that appear on consumable products, “organic” is probably the most familiar, and perhaps the most intuitively appealing. But even as demand grows, there is also a growing awareness that our perception of the purity of organic agriculture or understanding of organic certification may not completely align with reality, and that organic agriculture, even in compliance with certification standards, is not a panacea. But is it worth it?

As an ecologist, I believe that the most serious peril of non-organic coffee is harm to people and the environment at origin. And I believe that the coffee industry—supplier of a globally ubiquitous product grown by millions of people around the world—has a very special and central role in the promotion and evolution of the organic movement.

Let’s talk about some of the perceived shortcomings of organic food products which have particular relevance to coffee. The first is that organic produce is generally not more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. Coffee is not consumed for its nutritional benefits, so this is unlikely to influence coffee buying one way or another.

Pesticide residue on foods is a major concern to consumers, but some recent work has determined that organic foods may not be any safer than conventional foods. This is true for coffee, where little or no chemical residue is likely to remain once the beans are removed from the fruit (the part exposed to pesticides), dried and hulled, roasted at very high temperatures, ground, then brewed in water.

Finally, “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “high quality.” Organic coffee is often grown under a canopy of shade, and shade-grown coffee tends to ripen more slowly. Slower growth may intensify flavors, resulting in a better-tasting cup. This subtlety may not be discernable by the average consumer, and of course any coffee, carelessly harvested or processed, can result in a lousy cup.

If organic coffee is not healthier and doesn’t taste better than conventionally grown coffee, why should buyers favor it, especially given its higher price?

What is at stake?

Pesticides that are banned or highly restricted in the U.S. or Europe are still being used in many coffee-growing countries, including some that are highly toxic. Even illegal pesticides are still obtainable and being applied. Improper storage, inadequate personal protection, and lack of training for handlers of pesticides are not uncommon in the developing world, and result in farm workers being directly exposed to toxins.

Even if these toxins aren’t lethal, the effects on non-target organisms (including humans) may consist of reproductive impairment, weakened immune systems, abnormal hormonal function, cancers, genetic mutations, altered foraging and predator-avoidance behavior, faulty thermoregulation, and/or neurological effects. Use of herbicides also eliminates larval and pollinator host plants, transforming the base of food chains. These effects can occur even when chemicals are administered correctly, and are exacerbated when mis- or over-applied.

What I find most frightening is that there is no testing to determine what happens when multiple products are used concurrently or sequentially, or what happens when they combine with other chemicals (synthetic and natural) in the environment or in organisms. We don’t know how different climates or soils influence these interactions, or their long-term consequences. The number of potential combinations of substances, circumstances, and settings is mind-boggling, yet these synergies and their impacts on ecological and human health are essentially unknown!

According to the World of Organic Agriculture 2016 report, coffee is the world’s largest single organic crop. While comprising only two percent of all organic cropland, it covers over 20 percent of organic permanent cropland, and over half of the permanent cropland in Latin America, where the majority of organic coffee is grown. Moreover, coffee is grown in the tropics—home to some of the world’s most biodiverse areas and complex ecosystems.

Organic economics

Coffee farmers are largely motivated by economics. Organic agriculture often incurs substantial costs. Hand weeding, pruning of shade trees, and implementation of integrated pest management adds additional labor costs. Particularly daunting is the production or acquisition of large volumes of organic compost for fertilizer; synthetic fertilizers are not allowed due to high fossil fuel use in their manufacture and their limited use in promoting healthy soil. If a farm has a wet mill, the waste pulp can be used for fertilizer, but it will not be enough to meet the heavy feeding demands of coffee, so additional sources will need to be located. The hurdle of securing adequate organic fertilizer often contributes to yields for organic coffee growers that are lower than the inflated yields of high-input coffee—by over 30 percent in some cases.

Certification fees also play a role. Organic practices are verified by annual inspections, and producers pay, at some level, for certification, including accommodating inspectors and paying for their travel. These expenses, combined with lower yields and increased labor costs, are often not sufficiently offset by the price premiums paid for organic coffee, which are typically around 20 to 25 percent. This can make organic production unappealing to farmers. And since one of the requirements for organic certification is segregation from conventional coffee throughout the supply chain, there are financial burdens for importers, roasters, and other players in the supply chain as well. A portion of all these costs are of necessity passed on to consumers.

I don’t want to minimize the benefits of some agricultural chemicals, or oversimplify the complexities in growing coffee in environmentally or economically sustainable ways. But for decades we’ve been taking a risky gamble with our environment. Other coffee certifications have various restrictions on pesticide use, but only organic (and Smithsonian Bird-Friendly, for which organic certification is a prerequisite) prohibits most of them. There’s no denying that chemicals which are allowed under organic certification may be just as toxic as those that are not, but under organic rules their use is restricted to specific situations.

Many uncertified coffee farms may be considered “passive organic,” because they forego some or all chemical use due to expense or ideology. But unless they are certified, there is no way of knowing if, when, or how they use chemicals, or if they are following the many other essential environmentally-friendly practices that are mandated in organic certification standards. These encompass soil and water quality and conservation measures, and maintaining or enhancing biological resources, including supporting biodiversity.

Obtaining organic certification and fully embracing its philosophy is an enormous accomplishment, especially for farmers in developing countries where resources, technical support, and capital may be lacking. While many organic farms were or are helped by initial grants or other funding, some will require continued effort to preserve and advance organic practices. The coffee industry is in the position to aid in these activities by providing expertise, facilitating partnerships, and encouraging innovation. Larger industry players could help finance initiatives outright, and all front-line coffee providers have an opportunity to engage and educate the public on the importance of organic coffee, the challenges it presents to farmers, and the role of higher premiums in fostering and stabilizing organic production—indeed, helping it to prosper. Organic certification is a commitment to sustainability that deserves to be rewarded with our dollars.

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Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Certifications,Organic coffee