Who evaluates non-certified shade coffee? Part 1

by JulieCraves on March 22, 2006

There are pros and cons to the shade certification process, including costs to farmers, and problems with applying one-size-fits-all biodiversity criteria to different regions.

Therefore, some farms may meet or exceed certification criteria — and be excellent sanctuaries for biodiversity — yet not be shade certified.

Coffees from these sources may be labeled by roasters as “shade grown.”  Unfortunately, so are some coffees that are grown under conditions that might not be best for biodiversity, such as shaded monoculture, or conceivably even in full sun, if a retailer or distributor were particularly, um, “shady.”

Who decides whether a coffee can be labeled “shade grown”?  According to an article at Virtual Coffee,

Many importers, roasters and retailers add to the confusion by selling “verified shade” coffee, which comes from plantations that have not been certified by [Rainforest Alliance] or [Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center] but have been visited by someone—often an importer—who, without scientific guidelines, checks to make sure shade trees are present on the farms.

A white paper on sustainable coffee [1] noted:

Most shade coffee sales are coming from uncertified shade coffee introduced by roasters moving..to capture market opportunity…(e.g., Trader Joe’s, Millstone). … Many of these roasters claim to have visited the farms themselves and thereby justify “self-certifying” their shade coffees. …[T]he rapid proliferation of uncertified shade coffee brands is fueling concerns across the industry regarding free-riding and even fraud.

I’ve seen various explanations on who determines whether a coffee is “shade grown.” The Thanksgiving Coffee web site contains this note:

“Thanksgiving Coffee uses verified shade grown coffee. This means that its CEO, Paul Katzeff, or the importer has personally inspected the farm to insure that the plants are properly grown in the shade.”

Several roasters told me that they determine conditions primarily through farm visitation, consulting another roaster, or relying on the word of an importer. Others say they use independent auditors, but I have not yet found out who these auditors are, their training, or their criteria.

Many roasters sport the label of the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign, but it is a consumer-education organization, not a certifier.  NSCC goes so far as to say on its web site, regarding shade certification, that

“Brokers who actually visit the farms and are trusted in the coffee industry are more reliable than any form of certification.”

Really? I don’t know how many, if any, of these evaluators have experience in actually assessing biodiversity, from a scientific viewpoint. Is this really important? Can people without a biology background make sound assessments of coffee plantations?  I’ll address these questions in Part 2.

[1] Rice, P. and J. McLean. 1999. Sustainable Coffee at the Crossroads. Consumer’s Choice Council.

Revised on November 24, 2020

Posted in Background information,Certifications

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