Organic certifiers incorporating shade criteria

by JulieCraves on March 7, 2009

At least two organizations providing coffee certification services have incorporated shade criteria into their organic certification standards. Here is a bit about them, and some pros and cons.

Although requirements for organic labeling are usually established by national governments, independent agencies are licensed to provide inspection and certification services to producers. Two such organizations are OCIA International and Certimex (which operates only in Mexico). Both of these certifiers have personnel who are also trained in shade certification, because they are authorized by Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to perform inspection for their Bird-Friendly certification. (Rainforest Alliance uses Sustainable Farm Certification, Intl., their own subsidiary).


Certimex is using shade criteria as a requirement for organic certification.Great idea, except that the criteria is vague and undefined (“should grow under diversified shade” [1]). There is nothing wrong per se about adding in this type of wording, and anything that encourages some sort of shade preservation or restoration is a positive move. However,it offers no concrete assurance that compliance (which isn’t measurable) really does anything to preserve shade or biodiversity. We’ll have to see were Certimex goes with this.


OCIA offers a separate certification for organic/shade coffee. The standards are more specific and provide quantifiable benchmarks that are similar to, but not as broad, as Smithsonian Bird-Friendly and Rainforest Alliance. They were, in fact, developed in cooperation with Smithsonian. I was able to obtain the 2008 OCIA International Certification Standards. Here are the ones specific to shade:

  • Rustic or traditional polyculture encouraged.
  • 40% canopy cover required.
  • Not more than 20% of shade trees can be non-native species.
  • Not more than 50% of the canopy can be made up of Inga species.
  • Shade must comprise at least ten tree species that are not Inga, Erythrina, Gliricidia sepium, or Grevillea robusta [Erythrina and Gliricidia are deciduous; they lose
    their leaves during the dry season (our winter), at a time when canopy
    cover is extremely important for both migrant and resident birds.  Grevillea robusta is not native to Latin America].
  • A single species of Inga cannot comprise greater than 50% of the trees in the production are.

These criteria, along with others for vegetation management and the organic criteria themselves, are quantifiable habitat-targeted criteria, not the sort of general or intangible environmental standards used by Fair Trade or Utz Certified.

The future of combined environmental criteria

Integrating shade criteria into existing organic criteria to create an “organic +” category is something that has been discussed for quite some time as an option to help achieve some sort of “environmental seal” for coffee [2,3]. In that sense, the OCIA standards are a positive move.

On the other hand, unless there is coordination among organic certifiers to use uniform (and scientifically sound/biologically relevant) standards, this runs the risk of just adding another label to a bag of coffee, creating consumer confusion, fatigue, or even distrust. In this case, so far as I know, OCIA is not actually adding another label or designation to the coffee. This is problematic to me. A roaster could legitimately market this coffee as shade-grown, but a consumer would have little or no clue as to what standards are being met, since there is no designation or explanation on the OCIA web site.

Ultimately, an “eco-friendly” type of seal that incorporates organic and shade standards will also somehow have to be regionally sensitive. In some regions of Latin America, coffee is grown at high altitudes where clouds provide shade and additional tree cover would be counter-productive, or is grown in areas (like the Brazilian cerrado) that wasn’t forested to begin with. Standards for preservation of native habitat in these areas would be more appropriate. Even in forested areas, different parts of the world will require different shade criteria.

[1] Dietsch, T., and S. M.. Philpott. 2008. Linking consumers to sustainability: incorporating science into eco-friendly certification. Globalizations 5:247-258.

[2] Commission for Environmental Cooperation and TerraChoice Environmental Services. 2004. Environmental and other labelling of coffee, the role of mutual recognition, supporting cooperative action. Sustainable Commodity Initiative, International Institute for Sustainable Development and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

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

Revised on November 25, 2020

Posted in Certifications,Organic coffee

John March 7, 2009 at 3:58 pm

I think that having an organic+ or organic-shade could benefit smaller growers because they could have their habitat preservation reflected in labeling without having to pass through multiple certifications. Of course, that assumes the organic-shade label is based on useful criteria.

Jörg Volkmann March 9, 2009 at 4:46 am

Well, this is definitively a step into the right direction. What we need is habitat-specific recommendations for the species composition.

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