Sustainable coffee is produced on a farm with high biological diversity and low chemical inputs. It conserves resources, protects the environment, produces efficiently, competes commercially, and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
                               -- Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, First Sustainable Coffee Congress

I made the first post on this website on this day in 2005. I initially envisioned a modest collection of resources explaining the importance of “shade-grown coffee” to biodiversity, birds in particular. As an ornithologist, I knew how critical wintering habitats in the tropics are to the birds that I studied here in North America. As a coffee drinker, I was frustrated and surprised that there was no single go-to place for consumers that would enable them (us!) to make an informed choice about what coffees were grown under ecologically-responsible methods. I thought I would just whip one up!

Here I am, fifteen years and hundreds of posts later. There were so many layers of nuance to explore: not only ecology, but also agronomy, economics, marketing, and the social and cultural aspects of coffee. I attended trade shows, and visited coffee farms. And drank a lot of coffee.

There has been so much evolution in the coffee world over these years. Consolidation among the big players in coffee buyers (often to private ownership) has made it nearly impossible for me to provide what I considered to be some of the most valuable data on this site: which corporations owned which brands, and how much certified or eco-certified coffee they purchased. A proliferation of certifications or sustainability claims, with increasingly copious criteria and similar but unequal definitions, has made my other crucial task — attempting to explain what these labels, standards, and seals mean to the consumer — tedious at best.

The coffee and product reviews have been fun, and I have especially enjoyed writing about birds and biodiversity. But the difficulty in updating information on certification standards and corporate ownership, purchasing, and sustainability issues that I consider the core of my mission has me uncertain as to the future of this site. So I’ve while had some long dry spells without posting, depending on what was going on in my own life, now I feel I am at a crossroad.

I welcome constructive comments on what direction this website should take as I ponder the future. Just leaving the site here indefinitely is likely not an option. Although I am now accepting donations, I haven’t tried very hard to monetize this site because my emphasis was on providing information, not making money. As a recent semi-involuntary retiree, I don’t think I can commit to supporting the site long-term.

Thank you, readers and friends, for this interesting journey. We’ll see where the future takes us.

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Revised on November 28, 2020

Posted in Housekeeping

Some time ago, I wrote a detailed post about “land sharing” versus “land sparing“, two agriculture strategies. In a nutshell, land sharing is the use of cover crops, interplantings, and other measures that seek to approximate natural habitat, inviting birds and other biodiversity within the crop. Land sparing utilizes a patchwork of more intensive agriculture co-mingled with natural habitat.

Most discussions debating land sharing vs. land sparing revolve around food crops and the best way to feed a growing population without further devastation to biodiversity. A good review on the pros and cons is at the open-access paper Reframing the land-sparing/land sharing debate, as well as my previous post. This debate is somewhat different concerning coffee, because issues deal with sustainable farmer livelihoods rather than more general food security and availablility. That being said, shade coffee is an example of land sharing, while sun coffee plots in a matrix of forest would be an example of land sparing.

Over the summer, I attended (if that’s the word for a virtual meeting) the North American Ornithological Conference and listened to research on “Integrated Open Canopy” (IOC)*, a land sparing method in which intensively grown coffee plots (little or no shade) are grown at a 1:1 ratio with forested plots (primary or second growth). It reminded me it’s time to revisit this topic.

Why IOC/land sparing methods are becoming more important

The perceived advantage to farmers with IOC is that they can increase yields on the coffee plots while still preserving biodiversity on the forest plots. I add the qualifier for a few reasons. First, it’s not always true that shade coffee results in lower yields. Even when it does, shade coffee tends to be higher quality, and may be sold for higher prices (see the summary by the Specialty Coffee Association: Why Does Shade Matter?). Shaded systems provide additional benefits including increased pollination and pest control (proximity to natural habitats can also support these services). Sun or intensive coffee farming requires more inputs of fertilizer or for pest control and coffee plants need to be replaced more often, and may therefore be more costly. The decision on how to manage shade in coffee farms is therefore not simple, and it’s gotten more complicated.

A warming climate is pushing arabica coffee cultivation to higher, cooler elevations, driving deforestation. Climate change is also disrupting the distinct seasonality of tropical growing regions, expediting the spread of pests and disease. Coffee rust has become particularly devastating. The relationship between shade cover and rust is very complex; dense shade can facilitate rust, but open conditions promote spore dispersal and lack of natural vegetation disrupts ecosystem processes that bolster biological control of the fungus [1]. Small coffee farmers are giving up coffee farming for easier or more profitable crops. The importance of allowing flexibility to coffee farmers in their production methods to sustain their livelihoods while offering a way for them to preserve biodiversity at the same time is becoming more urgent.

A Slaty-backed Nightingale Thrush, Catharus fuscater, a forest-dependent species found only in primary forest and IOC farms in this study. Photo by Cephas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Does IOC/land sparing help birds?

Only a few studies have carefully looked specifically at coffee and birds in an IOC system. The most frequently cited is a paper out of Costa Rica [3], looking at small farms (<3 ha in coffee) in the Montes de Oro cooperative. Birds were surveyed in primary forest, secondary forest, IOC farms, and shade farms using mist-netting./bird banding. The authors noted most “shade” coffee in Costa Rica is commercial polyculture and thus they couldn’t compare IOC farms to shade coffee farms that might qualify for Bird Friendly certification. However, they did choose shade farms with more than 40% shade cover and 10 species of native trees.

The most important result in this study showed that IOC coffee farms had more forest-dependent bird species than shade coffee farms. In fact, forest-dependent species were least abundant on shade coffee farms. Forest-dependent species are typically found in large and/or primary forest and may be of higher conservation value due to their relative rarity in general as well as their more specialized roles — as seed dispersers, for example. Simple measures of presence/absence of species or even abundance (if those species are generalists, common, or non-native species) do not tell us much about the biodiversity value of forest.

Some further things to consider when contemplating these results:

The use of mist-netting is biased towards birds that spend most of their time in the lowest levels of the forest — from ground level to about 3 m, the height of the nets used to capture birds. Mean canopy height in their primary forest sites was 25 m, in IOC forest 18 m and in shade coffee 7 m. The mesh size they used was also small and suitable for birds only up to the size of a large jay, precluding capture of many larger species of birds. Mist netting misses many bird species, especially in plots with high canopy. If I had to guess, I would say their methods may have under-sampled forest-dependent birds, because canopy-dwelling species are often more specialized and sensitive to disturbance, and would not be sampled with standard mist nets.

On the other hand, proximity to large, intact forest greatly influences which species might occur in nearby plots, and the IOC farms were closer to the Monteverde Reserve Complex than the shade coffee farms, which may have biased the results towards more forest-dependent species. Additional survey methods are needed for clearer understanding and comparisons.

Of the 148 species they captured across all sites, only 24% were forest-dependent. Further, a third of those 148 species were only captured once or twice; not much can be concluded from such infrequent captures. These species may just be transients, and little can be surmised about their use of any of the habitats. Considering just the 36 species captured 20 or more times, only 8 were forest dependent. The capture rates for 5 of these was highest in primary forest, 2 in IOC, and 1 in shade coffee. All species were found in primary forest and on IOC farms, and all but one in secondary forest. Only half were found in shade coffee farms.

An additional limitation to this study was that it took place over several years in the months of November-March. This is the dry season, and resident birds (comprising 34 of the 36 forest-dependent species) nest later, in the rainy season. An important metric of the conservation value of land is whether it can support reproductive success, which was not possible in this study.

Nonetheless, there are encouraging trends in this study; similar results were presented for Honduras at the meeting I described, although this research has not yet been published. The results indicate that in regions where there are still intact forested plots combined with a tradition or need for more intensive forms of coffee farming, land sparing may be a good way to preserve birds and biodiversity. In addition to better bird sampling methods, examining the ecological and functional roles played by various birds (and ultimately other taxa), their reproductive success, and evaluating their usage of IOC forest plots, will need to be incorporated into further studies.

That being said, the benefits of land sparing to birds and wildlife are highly dependent on geography, climate, and plot configuration at farm, local, and landscape levels. In addition to scale, many other variables will factor into the value of land sparing for birds or other taxa, some of which I mention below.

How can certification play a role?

There really isn’t a mechanism for certifying IOC-type farms right now. Bird Friendly (which is currently the only true biodiversity-friendly/shade coffee certification) requires organic certification and canopy cover of at least 40 percent, as well as other vegetation parameters. It represents the classic land sharing concept. Building a framework for certification of land sparing IOC-type farms will require ecologically sound, scientifically-based criteria.

Some things to consider:

  • There should be some minimum size to the forest plots themselves, as well as requirements on their shape. This is because very small plots or plots with a lot of edge rather than core area are less valuable to forest-dependent species of birds (as well as other taxa).
  • The configuration of coffee plots and forest plots could play critical roles in habitat connectivity throughout the landscape (important to wildlife) or acting as buffers or windbreaks (important to coffee). These factors should be examined and taken into account.
  • While regenerating or second-growth forests should by all means be permitted under any certification scheme, forest age should also be taken into consideration, with older usually being more valuable. Fortunately, tropical forests mature quickly, and farmers should also be able to take advantage of tree biomass and receive credit for carbon sequestration. While this should be obvious, there should also be some way to define and evaluate whether a forest patch is actually a forest patch, and prohibit inappropriate plots such as gardens, etc. that are permitted in some certification schemes.
  • Clearing of new intensive farming plots, even if adequate offsetting natural forest is present, should not be allowed.
  • Forest composition (diversity of plant species, emphasizing natives) and structure (density and layers of vegetation, presence of vines and epiphytes) are important components. Many of these details are already incorporated into the Bird Friendly standard, but could probably use some tweaking depending on the region which may have birds or other taxa with specialized habitat needs, or where growing conditions are varied or unique.
  • The issue of chemical use in plots embedded or directly adjacent to forest plots also requires some thought. While organic practices are ideal, they will be more challenging for farmers in these situations because intensive coffee cultivation often requires supplemental fertilization, if not pest control.

When I visited coffee farms in Panama years ago, the patchwork of coffee and other land uses clearly demonstrated to me the difficulties in assessing these farms for certification. Several farms I went to in both Panama and Nicaragua would not qualify for Bird Friendly certification but had hectares of high-quality forest preserved on their farms. They were deserving of a certification that would recognize their efforts and afford them access to market incentives and increased income.

There are a number of slippery slopes on this road, but it is one that should be traveled. Coffee growing is becoming more difficult, and biodiversity loss in the tropical areas where coffee is grown is accelerating.

——

*Integrated Open Canopy is a term trademarked by the Mesoamerican Development Institute, an NGO working primarily in Honduras. They couple IOC farming with solar or biofuel drying methods for post-harvest processing — important to reduce deforestation for firewood typically used to fuel drying; read more here, as well as their goals and commitments at the Sustainable Coffee Challenge website.

[1] Vandermeer, J., D. Jackson, I.Perfecto. 2014. Qualitative dynamics of the coffee rust epidemic: Educating intuition with theoretical ecology. BioScience 64: 210—218. doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bit034

[2] Arce, V.J.C., Raudales, R., Trubey, R., King, D.I., Chandler, R.B., Chandler, D.C., 2009. Measuring and managing the environmental cost of coffee production in Latin America. Conservation and Society 7: 141-144.

[3] Chandler, R.B., King, D.I., Raudales, R., Trubey, R., Arce, V.J., 2013. A small-scale land-sparing approach to conserving biological diversity in tropical agricultural landscapes. Conservation Biology 27: 785-795.

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Revised on March 8, 2021

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Certifications,Coffee and the environment

Coffee berry borer update

by JulieCraves on October 26, 2020

The coffee berry borer (CBB, Hypothenemus hampei) is one of the most serious pests of coffee. The larvae of this beetle, which is native to Africa, live and feed exclusively on coffee beans. It has spread to coffee farms across the world and despite strict monitoring and prevention measures, showed up in Hawaii a decade ago. It has since island-hopped, most recently being found on Kauai. (Coffee rust, another serious threat to coffee, has also just been found in Hawaii.)

Because it lives inside the coffee cherry and bean, detection and particularly control can be challenging. Due to intense interest in the effects of shade/sun management, biological control (including by birds), and climate change impacts on this insect, I have published a number of posts about it. Although for many years I added CBB research to my coffee bibliography, but it became rather overwhelming and it goes only into early 2016. In 2015, the Journal of Insect Science published a more comprehensive literature review on CBB, which is open access. Google Scholar can provide links to peer-reviewed papers published since that time.

Here are my other previous posts on CBB:

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Revised on May 20, 2021

Posted in Research on coffee growing

In 2017, Rainforest Alliance announced they would merge with Utz (another certification), retain the Rainforest Alliance name, and develop a new standard — the set of rules and criteria required for a product to be labeled with the Rainforest Alliance certification seal. This standard was released on 30 June 2020. Here I will summarize, as I have in the past, the criteria in the standard as it applies to coffee and specifically what it means for birds and biodiversity. I focus on the shade criteria because this is the criteria many people have in mind when they are looking for ”shade coffee“ that is eco-friendly and provides habitat for birds and other biodiversity.

Rainforest Alliance has followed a trajectory over the past decade to weaken the criteria for shade. By 2017, the criteria regarding shade cover for Rainforest Alliance certified coffee farms eroded to the point that this certification could no longer assure consumers that coffee was grown on a farm that has habitat for birds or other wildlife. The newest standard reaffirms this.

I’ve moved much of the background information and links to previous posts to the end of this post to reduce some redundance while still keeping much of the relevant information, even if repeated from a previous discussion, all in one place for easier reference.

The 2020 shade criteria

First, the new standard has three types of requirements:

  1. Core: Must be met for certification.
  2. Mandatory Improvement:  Need to be met within three to six years of certification. Some of these are “Mandatory Smart Meters” that are measured each year but “do not have predefined targets set by the Rainforest Alliance. Instead, the producers themselves set the targets for these indicators and define the adequate actions to take to realize these improvements.”
  3. Self-selected Improvement: “Chosen by certificate holders based on their own risk assessment or aspirations” where the ”certificate holder defines if and when to comply.” These may also have Smart Meters.

(Number 2 veers into fox-guarding-the-henhouse territory, and Number 3 seems not to actually be a requirement, by definition!)

Regarding shade specifically:

There is no Core Requirement for shade in the 2020 standard.

There is a Mandatory Requirement that by the 6th year of certification, there is natural vegetation cover on at least 15% of the total area for farms growing shade-tolerant crops (coffee).

NOTE: natural vegetation cover does not mean shade canopy in these criteria!

Here is Rainforest Alliance’s definition of natural vegetation:

Natural vegetation is vegetation made up predominantly of native or locally adapted species, resembling in species
composition and structure the vegetation that occurs or would occur in the absence of human interference. Natural
vegetation can include one or more of the following (not exclusive):
“¢ Riparian buffers
“¢ Conservation areas within the farm
“¢ Natural vegetation in agroforestry systems
“¢ Border plantings, live fences and barriers around housing and infrastructure, or in other ways
“¢ Conservation and restoration areas outside the certified farm that effectively provide for long-term protection of the subject areas (for at least 25 years) and yield additional conservation value and protection status relative to the status quo

There is a Self-selected Smart Meter for coffee farms in which producers can work toward optimal shade (40% canopy cover and 12 native species per hectare). Of course, that’s an option for any coffee farmer, certified or not.

Biological ramifications

The criteria doesn’t specify that the vegetation cover needs to be over the crop. A farm with little or no canopy cover over the coffee could theoretically offer excellent bird and biodiversity habitat if it had an intact forest reserve, for example. However, if the coffee trees themselves are grown without shade, they generally need more inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides), must be replaced more frequently, and the soil is quickly depleted and subject to erosion.

Even if the vegetation threshold in the new standard was required to be over the crop, a 15% canopy cover is typically what is considered “shade monoculture” which lacks most of the benefits of real shade coffee to birds and biodiversity. For a more in-depth discussion of the impacts of this low level of vegetation/shade, please see this post and make sure to also read the comment section.

One doesn’t need to be an ecologist to conclude that 15% vegetation cover — potentially made up of areas around buildings, scattered across one or more farms, without specific density or structure requirements, and not necessarily even made up of trees — is probably inadequate or reduced-quality wildlife habitat, particularly for forest birds.

Other ramifications

A major focus in the new standard is what Rainforest Alliance calls a reimagining of certification: “Reimagining certification means shifting away from the idea that it is a diploma of compliance indicating whether a farm has met a certain set of requirements.” The philosophy behind certification standards that are process- and progress-oriented (versus benchmark/pass-fail such as Bird-Friendly) is to be more inclusive. I’m all for getting more farmers on the road to good farming practices — it’s vital for their survival. But in the case of product certification, I see two major downsides.

First, it can be misleading. In my talks with coffee consumers, their understanding of product certification is that it is exactly a diploma of compliance. Coffee can be Rainforest Alliance certified, implying to most consumers that it is very eco-friendly, when it in fact may be a far cry from being “grown in harmony with nature.” This leaves the door wide open for greenwashing.

Second, I believe this weakening of 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.

Bottom line

Maybe your Rainforest Allliance certified coffee came from a terrific farm with a diverse, highly structured shade canopy that supports resident and migratory birds and other biodiversity. Or it might come from a farm that has no shade at all over the coffee, or, conceivably anywhere else. There is no consumer-facing transparency about this. The new standard includes more traceability, including an online platform, but this is apparently only for the supply chain actors and is not for the public.

Positive changes

  • Meeting certification criteria for most schemes costs money, and the burden is on the farmer. Rainforest Alliance now requires that companies in their supply chains “pay a Sustainability Differential—an additional cash payment made to farmers above the market price for their certified product.” There is also a Sustainability Investment that will be “made by buyers of certified product to contribute to the investments needed of farm certificate holders.” For coffee, the first buyer makes these payments. The differential is agreed upon contractually. Rainforest Alliance reserves the right to introduce a minimum amount, but I do not see that one for coffee has been specified.
  • Producers cannot use wildlife to process coffee (e.g., no kopi luwak).
  • Producers receive a list of requirements and plans that are more tailored to their crop, country, and situation, which is a substantial improvement over a one-size-fits-all set of standards. This doesn’t take away from the fact that the requirements themselves may not be adequate. “Customized” does not have to mean “diminished.”
  • Although not part of the new standard, Rainforest Alliance is introducing a new seal and the new labeling requirements have finally done away with the use of their seal when a bag of coffee contained less than 100% certified beans. Now a bag must contain at least 90% certified beans to carry the seal. The lower threshold used to be 30%, although businesses selling less than 90% content were required to scale up over time, I did not see evidence of that on brands I was following.

There are related criteria in the standard on water management, wildlife protection, and agrochemical usage (there is no requirement that Rainforest Alliance certified crops are organic (a common misconception among consumers, I’ve learned; but less than 20% of Rainforest Alliance-certifed coffee is also certified organic), but there is criteria regarding types of chemicals and how they are applied, stored, etc.). The rest of the standard deals with many other important topics that make valuable contributions; I don’t want to minimize that. The entire standard and supporting information is available for download at the Rainforest Alliance certification documentation page.

BACKGROUND

Timeline of relevant shade criteria over time

Here are the most relevant shade/canopy/vegetation requirements over time. I’ve indicated changes I think are especially important in brackets.

2005

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.

2009

Farms with agroforestry crops located in areas where the original natural vegetative cover is forest must establish and maintain a permanent agroforestry system distributed homogenously throughout the plantations. The agroforestry system’s structure must meet the following requirements:

a. The tree community on the cultivated land consists of minimum 12 native species per hectare on average. [Tree density requirement removed.]
b. The tree canopy comprises at least two strata or stories.
c. The overall canopy density on the cultivated land is at least 40%. [“At all times” removed, indicating pruning can reduce canopy cover part of the year.]

[Substantial changes — reductions — were implimented here on what was required for initial certification as well as continued certification.]

2017

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.

[This was a radical transformation, more fully explained in this post. In a nutshell, fulfilling this criteria was not required for initial certification (only after 6 years); it did not address shade/canopy cover/density, only native vegetation cover; cover was no longer required to be homogenous; and levels greater than 15% were not required at any point.]

Discussion of previous standards

I encourage you to read through the following posts, because they offer a great deal of detail:

 

 

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Posted in Certifications,Rainforest Alliance