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

In 2017, Rainforest Alliance announced they would merge with Utz (another certification), retain the Rainforest Alliance name, and develop a new standard — the set of rules and criteria required for a product to be labeled with the Rainforest Alliance certification seal. This standard was released on 30 June 2020. Here I will summarize, as I have in the past, the criteria in the standard as it applies to coffee and specifically what it means for birds and biodiversity. I focus on the shade criteria because 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.

Rainforest Alliance has followed a trajectory over the past decade to weaken the criteria for shade. By 2017, the criteria regarding shade cover for Rainforest Alliance certified coffee farms eroded to the point that this certification could no longer assure consumers that coffee was grown on a farm that has habitat for birds or other wildlife. The newest standard reaffirms this.

I’ve moved much of the background information and links to previous posts to the end of this post to reduce some redundance while still keeping much of the relevant information, even if repeated from a previous discussion, all in one place for easier reference.

The 2020 shade criteria

First, the new standard has three types of requirements:

  1. Core: Must be met for certification.
  2. Mandatory Improvement:  Need to be met within three to six years of certification. Some of these are “Mandatory Smart Meters” that are measured each year but “do not have predefined targets set by the Rainforest Alliance. Instead, the producers themselves set the targets for these indicators and define the adequate actions to take to realize these improvements.”
  3. Self-selected Improvement: “Chosen by certificate holders based on their own risk assessment or aspirations” where the “certificate holder defines if and when to comply.” These may also have Smart Meters.

(Number 2 veers into fox-guarding-the-henhouse territory, and Number 3 seems not to actually be a requirement, by definition!)

Regarding shade specifically:

There is no Core Requirement for shade in the 2020 standard.

There is a Mandatory Requirement that by the 6th year of certification, there is natural vegetation cover on at least 15% of the total area for farms growing shade-tolerant crops (coffee).

NOTE: natural vegetation cover does not mean shade canopy in these criteria!

Here is Rainforest Alliance’s definition of natural vegetation:

Natural vegetation is vegetation made up predominantly of native or locally adapted species, resembling in species
composition and structure the vegetation that occurs or would occur in the absence of human interference. Natural
vegetation can include one or more of the following (not exclusive):
• Riparian buffers
• Conservation areas within the farm
• Natural vegetation in agroforestry systems
• Border plantings, live fences and barriers around housing and infrastructure, or in other ways
• Conservation and restoration areas outside the certified farm that effectively provide for long-term protection of the subject areas (for at least 25 years) and yield additional conservation value and protection status relative to the status quo

There is a Self-selected Smart Meter for coffee farms in which producers can work toward optimal shade (40% canopy cover and 12 native species per hectare). Of course, that’s an option for any coffee farmer, certified or not.

Biological ramifications

The criteria doesn’t specify that the vegetation cover needs to be over the crop. A farm with little or no canopy cover over the coffee could theoretically offer excellent bird and biodiversity habitat if it had an intact forest reserve, for example. However, if the coffee trees themselves are grown without shade, they generally need more inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides), must be replaced more frequently, and the soil is quickly depleted and subject to erosion.

Even if the vegetation threshold in the new standard was required to be over the crop, a 15% canopy cover is typically what is considered “shade monoculture” which lacks most of the benefits of real shade coffee to birds and biodiversity. For a more in-depth discussion of the impacts of this low level of vegetation/shade, please see this post and make sure to also read the comment section.

One doesn’t need to be an ecologist to conclude that 15% vegetation cover — potentially made up of areas around buildings, scattered across one or more farms, without specific density or structure requirements, and not necessarily even made up of trees — is probably inadequate or reduced-quality wildlife habitat, particularly for forest birds.

Other ramifications

A major focus in the new standard is what Rainforest Alliance calls a reimagining of certification: “Reimagining certification means shifting away from the idea that it is a diploma of compliance indicating whether a farm has met a certain set of requirements.” The philosophy behind 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. But in the case of product certification, I see two major downsides.

First, it can be misleading. In my talks with coffee consumers, their understanding of product certification is that it is exactly a diploma of compliance. 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.” This leaves the door wide open for greenwashing.

Second, 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.

Bottom line

Maybe your Rainforest Allliance certified 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, conceivably anywhere else. There is no consumer-facing transparency about this. The new standard includes more traceability, including an online platform, but this is apparently only for the supply chain actors and is not for the public.

Positive changes

  • Meeting certification criteria for most schemes costs money, and the burden is on the farmer. Rainforest Alliance now requires that companies in their supply chains “pay a Sustainability Differential—an additional cash payment made to farmers above the market price for their certified product.” There is also a Sustainability Investment that will be “made by buyers of certified product to contribute to the investments needed of farm certificate holders.” For coffee, the first buyer makes these payments. The differential is agreed upon contractually. Rainforest Alliance reserves the right to introduce a minimum amount, but I do not see that one for coffee has been specified.
  • Producers cannot use wildlife to process coffee (e.g., no kopi luwak).
  • Producers receive a list of requirements and plans that are more tailored to their crop, country, and situation, which is a substantial improvement over a one-size-fits-all set of standards. This doesn’t take away from the fact that the requirements themselves may not be adequate. “Customized” does not have to mean “diminished.”
  • Although not part of the new standard, Rainforest Alliance is introducing a new seal and the new labeling requirements have finally done away with the use of their seal when a bag of coffee contained less than 100% certified beans. Now a bag must contain at least 90% certified beans to carry the seal. The lower threshold used to be 30%, although businesses selling less than 90% content were required to scale up over time, I did not see evidence of that on brands I was following.

There are related criteria in the standard on water management, wildlife protection, and agrochemical usage (there is no requirement that Rainforest Alliance certified crops are organic (a common misconception among consumers, I’ve learned; but less than 20% of Rainforest Alliance-certifed coffee is also certified organic), but there is criteria regarding types of chemicals and how they are applied, stored, etc.). The rest of the standard deals with many other important topics that make valuable contributions; I don’t want to minimize that. The entire standard and supporting information is available for download at the Rainforest Alliance certification documentation page.

BACKGROUND

Timeline of relevant shade criteria over time

Here are the most relevant shade/canopy/vegetation requirements over time. I’ve indicated changes I think are especially important in brackets.

2005

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.

2009

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 — were implimented here on what was required for initial certification as well as continued certification.]

2017

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.

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

Discussion of previous standards

I encourage you to read through the following posts, because they offer a great deal of detail:

 

 

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Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

[Update: Newest 2020 standard discussed here.]

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.

2005

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.

2009

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.]

2017

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.

 

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Revised on July 28, 2020

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

Sips

by JulieCraves on September 10, 2018

I’ve been keeping up with many important developments in the world of sustainable coffee. Here are the ones you should be reading:

Regarding coffee certifications:

Regarding shade-grown coffee in particular:

Regarding the dangers of cheap coffee and the current frightening drop in the price of commodity coffee:

We’ve been here before and the results are catastrophic for farmers and have a ripple effect throughout economies. Read my piece about corporate coffee for an overview.

And also:

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Revised on November 14, 2019

Posted in Coffee news and miscellany

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