The new Rainforest Alliance shade requirements

by JulieCraves on February 2, 2017

[Update: Newest 2020 standard discussed here.]

[This post also appears at Daily Coffee News]

After many months, the latest revision to Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard, which provides the requirements for Rainforest Alliance certification, have been approved. The 2017 standard will be used for audits beginning in July 2017.

The 2017 standard covers a lot of ground. In addition to various environmental topics, it also addresses management, social, and livelihood aspects (wages, worker rights, etc.). As the standard has gone through periodic updates, it has refined not only individual criterion, but also tweaked the overarching structure and scoring protocols.

My focus here is on the ”shade criteria.” These requirements are what many people have in mind when they are looking for ”shade coffee” that is eco-friendly and provides habitat for birds and other biodiversity.


The SAN criteria regarding shade for coffee farms has slowly changed in the past decade. A full explanation of these changes is provided in the post The (De)evolution of Rainforest Alliance shade criteria. That post provides a timeline and interpretation of the modifications to the shade criteria. It also introduces and explains the changes proposed for the 2017 standard. A follow-up post (Rainforest Alliance drastically revises shade requirement) describes a revised interim draft of the standard, and a final update briefly outlined the public comments and SAN’s response.

For the most concise before-and-after comparison of the changes in the shade requirements for Rainforest Alliance certification, I provide below the criterion for coffee from the 2005 SAN standard. Note that while this was not a critical (required) criterion, it was worded so that certain conditions were mandatory for initial certification; my emphasis highlights these provisions.

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.

The 2017 standard

The standard lists dozens of critera, broken into four tiers. “Critical” criteria are mandatory. The others are labeled Level C (“good”), B (“better”), or A (“best”) representing increasing levels of sustainablity performance. Farms can be initially certified by meeting all critical criteria plus  50% of the Level C/good criteria. To remain certified, farms have to comply with increasingly higher criteria. By the sixth year of certification, farms must meet all critical criteria, plus 90% of Level C criteria, 90% of Level B criteria, and 50% of Level A criteria.

The standard also has a section of Terms and Definitions. It includes the term “SAN canopy cover and species diversity parameters.” For coffee farms, the definition states there must be 40% minimum canopy cover and a minimum 12 native tree species per hectare. The definition also states that canopy cover is measured when foliage is most dense.

The 2017 “shade” criterion

The criterion covering shade in the 2017 SAN standard is in the topic area “Native Vegetation.”  There are no critical criteria (required for initial certification) in this topic area.

The specific criterion comparable to the 2005 shade criterion is a Level A criterion. It reads as follows (emphasis on section that applies to coffee):

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.

What this means

Specifically for habitat

As noted, this new criterion is Level A — the highest performance level. However, it is less stringent and not as encompassing of ecological requirements in previous standards.

This new criterion does not address shade density/canopy density. It targets 15% native vegetation cover. Ecologically speaking, these terms represent vegetation structure with very different ramifications for habitat quality. Read why this is important here.

Although there is mention of the minimum 40% canopy cover and 12 native tree species per hectare in the criterion, it states that farms can meet those parameters OR have 15% native vegetation cover.

There is no requirement for vegetation to be contiguous (e.g., not in small fragments that have less value to biodiversity), to be part of the coffee production area, or even to be on each individual farm in a group such as a cooperative.

There are no strata requirements. These strata are the various ”layers” of trees, seen in the shade diagram here. This type of structure is critical to biodiversity in ecosystems; the more the better.

In practical terms

In general, a product certified under this system represents a product somewhere along the path to sustainability, not a product that has necessarily acheived some specific benchmark. Specifically, as a Level A criterion, the 15% native vegetation cover criterion is not required until the sixth year after initial certification, perhaps longer if other Level A criteria make up the 50% that are needed by that time. Contrast with Smithsonian Bird-Friendly standards, which not only encompass shade canopy density, strata, and organic certification criteria — but all of must be met to certify.

In other words, a coffee farm with less than 15% native vegetation cover could be Rainforest Alliance certified and remain so for years as long as they had a management plan to progressively increase this amount. Levels greater than 15% are not required at any point.

Many Rainforest Alliance certified farms may, in fact, have ecologically-significant shade/canopy density and meet many other biodiversity-enhancing measures. And rarms that have existing agroforestry shade cover are required to retain this shade cover. The problem is that there is no way for the public to differentiate between these types of farms and those that have yet to achieve even the far less valuable 15% vegetation cover benchmark.

Broader ramifications

This lack of transparency to a consumer seeking out ”shade coffee” or coffee that is grown using field-tested approaches to maximizing the value of agroforestry to biodiversity is, in my opinion, an enormous problem. It has great potential to erode consumer trust. This seems like an especially treacherous road for an organization such as Rainforest Alliance whose stated mission is conserving biodiversity. It may also be a disservice to other certifications. If Rainforest Alliance certification — with a high public profile and reputation for ”saving the rainforest”– does not deliver what consumers thought it did, it may foster distrust in other certifications as well.

The SAN standard overall has committed to encouraging continuous improvement. However, by lowering the bar (again, focusing on ”shade”), it can have the effect of removing some incentives to truly improve habitat. The main drivers for farmers to obtain certification is access to buyers/markets, forming long-term supplier relationships, and thus added income. Low barriers to certification means farmers may reap benefits without having fully met the requirements implied to the consumer by the certification. These low barriers can be especially appealing because the benefits can be realized before full investment in upgrading production have taken place.

Lower entry barriers to the ”shade coffee” market means coffee quality will span a broader spectrum. The lower sunlight levels of a shade canopy result in physiological changes in the coffee cherry, which can translate into higher cup quality. Since taste is probably the ultimate catalyst for a coffee purchase, diluting the ”shade coffee” market with potentially lower quality beans not actually grown under shade may potentially lower market demand for shade coffee.

Finally and perhaps most troubling to me is that this considerable weakening of the 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.

The Sustainable Agriculture Network and Rainforest Alliance have made, and continue to make, great contributions to the environmental and economic sustainability of many agricultural products and producers. Therefore it is with regret that I report that I feel the changes in the new standard regarding shade criteria have negative effects and, due to lack of transparency, I can no longer recommend Rainforest Alliance certified coffee to consumers specifically seeking “shade grown” coffee.


Revised on December 7, 2020

Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance

T R Shankar Raman March 13, 2017 at 10:01 am

Thanks for this detailed and well-considered post. You are right in pointing out the dilution of the shade requirement (as applied to an agroforestry crop like coffee) since the 2005 version of the SAN Standard and that it is likely to compromise the biodiversity values of “shade-grown” coffee. The 2017 SAN Standard which is just being rolled out has some progressive elements (better definition of natural ecosystems, integration of concerns related to invasive alien species, human — wildlife coexistence, and aquatic ecosystems). Still, some of the dilutions and loopholes the 2017 version contains could have been avoided. (Disclosure: my organisation, colleagues, and I were involved with SAN in the past in contributing to refining the earlier version of the SAN Standards.)

The criteria related to shade to note are 2.5 (Category C criterion that will be assessed by auditors on the farm from year 0 itself) and 2.9 (Category A criterion, which will begin to be assessed only from year 6). Criterion 2.5 states that farms should protect existing agroforestry shade tree cover (which is good). It also enjoins protection of vegetation adjacent to aquatic ecosystems and large native trees, which are both positive in my opinion. Criterion 2.5 read with 2.14 (a level A criterion that reads: “Efforts are implemented to contain and reduce invasive plants already present on the farm.”) can also help to gradually shift the shade structure on the farm towards more native species. While this is positive, more specific metrics of shade density and cover are in 2.9, which suffers from some of the inadequacies you point out.

Specifically, 2.9 ignores canopy structure (e.g., two layers of shade) and density (trees/hectare), which will likely affect biodiversity values. It is puzzling why this has not been included in the “SAN canopy cover and species diversity parameters”, given that the Standard now gives farms the choice of either developing shade or “have at least 15% total native vegetation coverage across the farm or group of farms”. For a farm that decides to adopt minimum 40% shade cover and 12 native species/hectare it should not be difficult to include these minimum tree densities or two layers of shade.

Second, 2.9 as a level A criterion will be assessed only from year 6, as per the new SAN Certification Rules 2017. Even in the sixth year, farms can get certified even if they meet only 50% of all level A criteria (which means 2.9 can be given a miss). So farms can literally go years and years completely ignoring 2.9 and shade/native vegetation cover considerations. If a farm breaks certification at year 5 and applies fresh after a year or so (this or other such jugaad not inconceivable in India), it would probably start again at the bottom (year 0) and can evade meeting this requirement for even longer.

Third, the alternative 2.9 provides (15% total native vegetation coverage) also opens up another possible confusion. As “native vegetation coverage” is not clearly defined, a farm that maintains only 15% shade canopy cover using say two or three native species (and has no other set aside natural vegetation areas) can justifiably claim to meet this requirement simply from the scattered shade trees. In which case, what would the incentive be to go for the higher bar of 40% shade cover or 12 native species?

The idea of 15% native vegetation coverage (10% for non shade-tolerant crops like tea) is not a bad one per se. Keeping native vegetation such as natural forests or grasslands as fragments within production areas or along streams and rivers can make a lot of difference for conservation. Such “land sparing” (set asides) can be of higher value for conservation than “land sharing” (improve shade in production area). For open crops like tea, the 10% criterion is an improvement from earlier, where large areas of certified tea basically continue to have (a) no shade trees at all, (b) only sparse non-native shade trees such as Australian silver oak, or (c) no set aside natural vegetation remnants, and despite all this still be Rainforest Alliance certified! This earlier situation (in the India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya context at least) basically meant just certifying “business as usual” tea production areas with very little or no value-addition from a biodiversity point of view . So bringing a 10% minimum native vegetation criterion is an improvement from the lower baselines that exist in the case of non-shade-grown crops like tea (although its value will depend on how well auditors are trained to assess this in the field–but that’s another issue requiring a separate serious consideration).

The problem in the context of shade crops like coffee is that this “native vegetation coverage” criterion has been tacked onto an either/or situation with the shade density/diversity criterion, which creates the above confusions, and may be worse than the baseline prevalent in many coffee farms (esp. in India). Only a strict interpretation of 2.5 by auditors may reduce a slide to the bottom (where overall shade is concerned).

The situation can be improved in two specific ways. First, clearly lay out the shade criterion (including tree density and layers) as a level C criterion to be assessed in all farms from the first certification audit. Second, for farms that cannot grow coffee under such shade (such as in some montane coffee areas), they could be mandated to set aside at least 15% area under natural ecosystems, with a clear definition of what these can be (i.e. forest patches, natural grasslands, riverine strips, corridors etc. whose biodiversity values are well justified) and not left loosely defined to allow a farm to merely use 15% sparse native vegetation (of lower biodiversity value than either the 40% shade or the 15% set-aside). Slightly more lenient norms could be established for small-holders.

This might mean that some existing certified farms may fail the requirement and it may also reduce the number of new farms that could get certified. Certification systems, of course, won’t be happy to “lose customers”. But in the longer run, these improvements would make the system more credible and act as an incentive for farms to make definite improvements in order to get certified (a race to the top), rather than for certification standards to dilute their standards to meet the lowest common denominator (a race to the bottom). Right now, on the shade criterion, a race to the bottom seems to be in progress.

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