Update on proposed new Rainforest Alliance standard

by JulieCraves on April 11, 2016

SAN-logo[Updates: Since this post, the standard revision, and the merger with UTZ, many of the links in this post have been eliminated; I’ve replaced them with archived links that will hopefully provide historical context. The newest 2020 standard is discussed here.]

Periodically, coffee certification standards and criteria undergo a review process, with modifications made if necessary. The standard used to certify Rainforest Alliance coffee (and other RA-certified products) are developed by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN).

The current SAN standard has been undergoing a fairly long review and revision process. Last year in my post The (de)evolution of Rainforest Alliance shade criteria, I outlined the incremental relaxation of the criteria for shade over agroforestry crops — what the public understands to signify “shade-grown coffee.”

In April of last year, I further described the new proposed standard, which no longer requires a shade canopy over coffee or other shade-tolerant crops for initial certification, and after 3 years only requires “trees and natural areas” covering 20% of total land area. This, in addition to the lowering of other criteria related to tree density and composition, seriously undermines the relevance of the Rainforest Alliance seal for consumers looking for ”shade coffee” that is eco-friendly to birds and other diversity. Please read the previous post and comments for details.

At that time, the public was urged to comment; I did so, as well as consulting with one of the three major bird conservation organizations that also submitted comments. The compilation of the comments shows I was not alone in my dismay at the weakening of the shade standard. Our voices were heard, because this PDF document by SAN summarizing the comments and next steps includes the following section:


This is encouraging — SAN gave the shade tree criterion a second look. The draft the public commented on was version 3.5, and the draft approved last month was reportedly be 4.3. None of the interim drafts were made public (that I know of) and while SAN only stated that the “next standard draft version” would have the shade criterion, we have to assume it will survive through to the the final draft. I’ll be cautiously optimistic that it will also be closer to the current standard, but given the recent trend I don’t want to set my hopes too high. We’ll have to wait and see.

As a result of the comments and additional revisions, the timeline of the whole process was pushed out. The new SAN Sustainable Agriculture Standard will be published in September 2016, and it will be binding for audits on all farms and groups starting July 2017.


Revised on January 7, 2022

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

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