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

Resources for new readers

by JulieCraves on November 29, 2016

I’d like to welcome new readers to Coffee & Conservation. I am an ornithologist and coffee lover, and I believe that the simple choice of the coffee we choose to buy has the power to help conserve birds, the ecosystems that sustain them, and provide a stable, comfortable income for farmers. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to reach audiences, especially those coming from Michigan Blue Magazine and the American Birding Association.

mi-blue-logoI was interviewed for the winter 2016 issue of Michigan Blue for the article “Is coffee for the birds?” (pdf) which covered shade-grown coffee and the connection to birds, and the genesis of Coffee & Conservation. If you are here because the article piqued your curiosity, I hope that reading through this site will introduce you to the issues behind your morning cup and how important it is to purchase sustainably-grown coffee.

aba-logoThe American Birding Association is re-launching their Song Bird Coffee line which will now be certified Smithsonian Bird-Friendly. I believe that birders can be especially influential in supporting and advocating for sustainable coffee. I have found many birders are reluctant to change their coffee-buying habits; I hope the information on this site will make a case for change.

Where to begin? Quick ways to find more information include the User Guide tab at the top of the page, the Featured Content links at the upper left, and the search box at the top right.  Listed below are links of particular interest to get you started.

How is coffee grown, and why is it important to birds and other biodiversity?

What do all the certifications mean?

Why should I pay more for certified or environmentally-friendly coffee?

Where can I get environmentally-friendly coffee?

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Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Background information

Elfin-woods Warbler. Photo by Mike Morel/USFWS under a Creative Commons license.

Elfin-woods Warbler. Photos by Mike Morel/USFWS under a Creative Commons license.

It has been awhile since I have posted an entry in the Know Your Coffee Bird series, which profiles birds that utilize shade coffee farms. This post is about a species that was not on my short list for an upcoming account, but has a very special, recently defined connection to coffee.

The Elfin-woods Warbler (Setophaga angelae) is one of over 100 species of warblers found in the New World, and is only found in Puerto Rico. Discovered and described less than 50 years ago, it is named for a unique habitat it favors — elfin woods. High humidity and rainfall, strong winds, and nutrient-poor soils result in the short, often twisted trees (dominated by only a few species) that are characteristic of these forests, found between 750-850 meters. More recently, the warbler has also adapted to lower wet forests at 600-900 meters. This bird may have eluded discovery for so long due to being very similar in appearance to another species I have profiled as a coffee bird, the Black-and-white Warbler, which nests in North America but winters in Puerto Rico.

The Elfin-woods Warbler was likely always rare, and it was proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1982. Habitat loss and degradation due to development, agriculture, and hurricanes are among the factors that drove population declines in the following decades. The current estimate is fewer than 2000 individuals in two populations: in the El Yunque National Forest in the eastern part of the island, and in Maricao Commonwealth Forest and adjacent private lands in the west. Part of the latter is an Important Bird Area designated by BirdLife International.

Earlier this month, after years of languishing as a candidate, the warbler was finally designated as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Elfin-woods Warbler. Photos by Mike Morel/USFWS under a Creative Commons license.

Elfin-woods Warbler. Photos by Mike Morel/USFWS under a Creative Commons license.

When a species is afforded protected status under the Act, “critical habitat” is designated. These are areas that are essential to conservation and which may require special management efforts. Critical habitat for the Elfin-woods Warbler is largely public land, but does contain private holdings including coffee farms and potential coffee-growing land adjacent to the Maricao Commonwealth Forest. The warblers have been detected in shade coffee plantations, but not in sun coffee farms. Thus, in the critical habitat areas, conversion of shade coffee to sun coffee will be prohibited. Conversely, the planting of shade trees on sun coffee farms is encouraged. Provisions for coffee growers in this area also allow for pruning of shade and coffee trees, but only outside of the nesting season. Herbicides and pesticides may be used, but only during the first two years or so while the coffee and shade trees are becoming established (a time in which the warblers are not likely to use the farm).

Previous research has indicated that much of Puerto Rico’s coffee is not grown under shade, but that farmers are willing to convert to shade if they were encouraged to do so by incentives such as being supplied with shade trees to plant.  Since 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been working on habitat restoration initiatives in the Maricao coffee growing area through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. This has included technical and financial assistance to landowners to establish and restore shade coffee.  The listing of the Elfin-woods Warbler will likely provide more incentive and opportunity for farmers to create and enhance shade coffee, to the benefit of this interesting bird and other biodiversity associated with its habitats.

Read more:


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Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Know Your Coffee Birds series

Nestlé has released their 2015 Creating Shared Value report. The Swiss multinational is one of the largest food companies in the world and produces one of the most correspondingly voluminous CSR reports. I delved into the 2013 report in some detail, and you can refer to that post for context. Here, I will just highlight the most salient reports regarding coffee.

  • Nestlé continues to purchase about 10% of the world’s coffee production. In 2014, those purchases totalled 842,000 metric tons, in 2015 it was 849,000 tons. I track these figures in the table at Corporate coffee: How much is eco-certified?.
  • Of those 849,000 tons, only 56% is traceable back to a farm or plantation (p.115). The company defines that traceability as 4C Verified — compliant with the most rudimentary, baseline standards in the industry. Or to put it another way, over 373,000* tons is NOT traceable to source and may not even meet the most basic standards of ethical human and environmental decency.
  • More astonishing, Nestlé sources about a quarter of their coffee (225,600 tons) directly from 760,000 farmers (p. 100) via their Farmer Connect program (p.117) of which 85% is 4C compliant. That means 15% of their direct-sourced coffee — from known producers they are working with — is not even 4C Verified.
  • 85% of the approximately 55,000 tons of coffee used for Nespresso’s permanent Grand Cru coffee pod selections is sourced under their Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality program (p. 119), about the same percentage as the past 3 years. This is their proprietary program based on Rainforest Alliance standards. Read more here.
  • There is no mention of the volume of organic or other eco-certified coffee purchases. Nestlé doesn’t place value in third-party certification for coffee (see statement below).


At 351 pages, there is much more material in the report, which you can download at their website.

*56% of 849,000 tons = 475,440, although later (p. 118) in the report they say that 482,054 tons represents 56%. The latter would mean they purchased 860,811 tons of coffee, so I used the former figures, as they are given several times in the report.

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Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Corporate coffee,Nestlé’/Nespresso

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:


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

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.

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Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance