Why certifying shade coffee is so complex

by JulieCraves on February 3, 2008

After visiting some coffee farms in Panama’s western highlands, I have some thoughts regarding shade certification programs.

There are pros and cons of various certifications. And as I frequently note here on C&C, farms lacking certifications may easily meet or exceed criteria but can’t afford audit and certification fees. Finca Hartmann, which I discussed in my previous post, is not certified organic or shade grown. In part, they do not qualify because they use an herbicide once a year and also use some non-organic fertilizer. A Hartmann family member also told me that they did look into shade certification, but were not given help or support by the certifier so they gave up on it.

Aside from affordability, I can now easily see the huge hurdles and complications involved in certifying farms as biodiversity-friendly, both for the farmers and for the certifying agencies. Nearly all the coffee growing areas we encountered were complex amalgamations of habitats and management types which appear to be very challenging to evaluate and categorize, especially farms like Finca Hartmann that grow coffee in matrix of forest types and with other crops. Ironically, it seems the larger and more uniform a farm, the easier it would be to certify. If environmental criteria were not strict, certification would be relatively straightforward.

What would be more meaningful (although perhaps not especially practical or achievable at this time) would be some sort of ranking system or disclosure of key habitat and management components. Some of these elements might be:

  • Total farm property, and percent in infastructure, native forest, pasture, coffee, other crops, and mixed use.
  • Range and average acreage of coffee plots (e.g., of the 70 ha of coffee on a farm, it is distributed in 30 plots of 1 to 12 ha, average 7 ha).
  • Range and average acreage of natural forest habitat, and whether or not is it permanently preserved.
  • Number of species of shade trees, top 5 species (with scientific names, since there are so many local variations of common names), and some measure of density or distribution. I include this latter component because it speaks to whether coffee is grown under shade versus near shade. Some shade certification criteria include a rule that there must be a certain number of shade trees per hectare. Yet one could have the requisite number of “shade” trees in a clump, adjacent to a patch of coffee grown entirely in the sun. This might not be entirely bad — and indeed we saw birds using tree patches like this and wandering over to forage in the coffee, especially if the patches were substantial, native, and contained a variety of vegetation. But that may not offer the same types of foraging opportunity as coffee integrated with taller vegetation. This is likely to vary widely regionally and on a smaller landscape scale.
  • Number of shade layers. This type of multi-layer diversity is very important. The more layers, the closer it gets to the native forest it displaces. That being said, the lack of uniformity and apparent variety of management types over a farm could make this very difficult to evaluate.
  • Whether the farm used 1) pesticides, 2) herbicides, 3) non-organic fertilizer, and how often. The latter two when used sparingly are not as damaging to the environment as pesticides, yet they currently may all get lumped under “non-organic” practices.
  • Water treatment and waste recycling procedures.
  • The exact coordinates of the farm. With the coverage and resolution of applications like Google Earth, one can get a good idea of land use by looking at satellite photos.
  • Some quantitative data on fauna, emphasizing forest-dependent species, if it can be provided by people with some type of ecological expertise.

Farms or co-ops might be able provide this type of information on their web sites (or roasters could include it on their offerings pages) in some sort of standardized format. This information could help consumers assess the eco-friendliness of their coffee sources.

Of course, this type of data is fairly meaningless to the average consumer. An additional requirement would be a central reference web site explaining the variables and their importance. This material could be freely used by roasters on their web sites. This central site could also keep a database of links and summaries of farm information (in a small way, it’s what I try to do here at C&C).

This Internet based system would be quite simple and inexpensive; importers and roasters with relationships with farms and co-ops could easily get this out on the web. One obvious shortcoming is that it requires consumers to put forth some effort by looking something up on the Internet. The pertinent data doesn’t end up on a retail bag of coffee in some simple-to-interpret seal or ranking. Yet, it’s hard for me to imagine how a ranking system would work, since whoever is doing the evaluation would run into the same sorts of problems trying to assign simple, discreet values to complex systems.

These are just some thoughts, based on what I’ve seen and the types of information that I, as an ecologist, try to suss out when I choose a coffee.

Finally, I’d like to point out the other side of the coin via a spot-on observation made by the Bean Activist’s Chris O’Brien in the comments on my Counter Culture Finca Mauritania Microlots review. He points out that it doesn’t make sense that the burden of proof of sustainability is on the farmers.

“It seems backwards that we force the ‘good guys’ to pay to prove their goodness instead of charging the ‘bad guys’ for being bad. Ultimately I think it comes down to the need for policy changes, in producer countries as well as consumer countries. The full sun, low-price, chemical coffee estates should be the ones paying extra fees for violating basic minimum standards for sustainability and equity.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this. But since the biggest producers of sun coffee are also much stronger, larger, and more powerful than the producers of shade coffee, I think this will be a hard row to hoe. And I believe so long as there is a demand for cheap technified coffee, it will continued to be produced, especially if the disincentives to the producers don’t make it unprofitable. Once again, for the moment, we are left with educating consumers so that they can hopefully begin to influence the market with their buying power.

Revised on October 30, 2020

Posted in Certifications

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