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Rainforest Alliance Coffee Certification May Soon Not Actually Require Shade Cover


by Julie Craves of Coffee & Conservation

The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is revising the standards used for Rainforest Alliance certification, as part of a review process takes place every few years.

Over the last decade, revisions have introduced a gradual relaxation of the criteria that deal with shade cover for agroforestry crops, including coffee. The amount, composition, and structure of shade cover is the main proxy for habitat preservation and the conservation of biodiversity, especially birds, in coffee production areas.

The current draft, the third and final, of the standard is very different from previous versions; it is available for download on this page (or click here for a PDF). Once finalized, the new standard will be published in October 2015, and be used in audits beginning in January 2017.

Here’s the thing: This latest version contains no mandatory criteria for shade cover for shade-tolerant crops such as coffee.

The criterion that deals loosely with shade can be met by things other than shade trees, including gardens, off-site areas, water bodies, and tree cover in pastures. It is not a critical criterion that must be met for initial certification. The overall structure of the criterion means that “shade monoculture” or even “sun coffee” can receive Rainforest Alliance certification.

A history of previous versions of the shade criteria in the SAN standard can be readhere. Briefly, the current standard (and therefore Rainforest Alliance certification) requires a canopy density (shade) on the cultivated land of at least 40% and two “layers” of vegetation; 12 of the tree species per hectare have to be native. (Older versions also required a density of at least 70 shade trees per hectare; this was dropped in 2009.)

Here is the current proposed criterion that deals with “shade” or forest cover, with explanations and clarifications given as footnotes.

Trees and natural ecosystems together cover at least 20% of the total land area1 for farms producing shade-tolerant crops or cattle, or at least 10% of the total land area for farms producing non-shade-tolerant crops.

a) Such areas consist of any combination of:

  1. Conserved natural ecosystems;
  2. Areas being restored to natural ecosystems;
  3. Tree cover within agroforestry or silvopastoral production plots2;
  4. Gardens, live fences, riparian zones or border plantings; or
  5. Off-site compensation areas, including land held in common by farmer groups that is not part of individual member farms3.

b) The overall required percentage is based on the proportion of shade-tolerant or non-shade-tolerant crop or cattle area covered by the SAN certificate scope4;

c) If the required level of tree cover and/or natural ecosystems is not met at the time of the first certification audit based on this standard, a plan to attain the required level within three years of this date is established and progressively implemented5;

d) Restoration and re-vegetation activities use native species and give preference to restoring riparian areas and wildlife movement corridors.

The requirements for “shade” are not as strict or specific as they once were, and there is a great deal of leeway in meeting the reduced requirements. The combination of allowable types of green spaces can result in the required percentage to consist of small and fragmented plots that are not necessarily “natural.” These do not provide the same quality of habitat as a shade agroforestry system that requires canopy cover of adequate density, composition, and distribution.

A supporting document (PDF) states that the specific tree cover parameters of previous versions of the standard were replaced because they had proven “impracticable for many producers.” Rainforest Alliance certified its first coffee farm in 1995, and now certifies over 5% of global coffee production, in addition to dozens of other crops and products. This scaling up of certification efforts is admirable, but is coming at the cost of maintaining rigorous environmental standards. Instead of fewer producers achieving high standards, it appears the bar is perhaps being lowered to make it easier for more producers to become certified.

This is not an indictment of Rainforest Alliance certification as a whole; nor is this to say the certification program does not confer benefits. It serves as a heads-up that what is behind certifications changes over time, and that Rainforest Alliance certification, despite the implications in its very name, does not necessarily mean coffee is shade-grown.

The comment period is open until April 30. Please comment on the new draft standards by taking this survey.


1As noted, previous standards had requirements specifically for the coffee growing production area, not the entire farm unit. Now, what qualifies as “shade” does not have to be over or near the coffee itself. See also note 4 below; the total percentage required may actually be less than 20%.

2Silvopasture = trees in livestock production pastures; these can be counted toward the total percentage.

3In response to a specific query, SAN clarified whether or not the same single “off-site compensation area” could be used by more than one producer. They responded “producer groups could have just one forest reserve, for example, that would count for the required percentage of several producers.”

4This provision seems in conflict with the straightforward wording of the criterion itself, that (for coffee) 20% of the total land area must be covered by trees or natural ecosystems. In response to a specific query, SAN replied that this provision “is the concept that will be adapted for the respective criterion wording.” This indicates that depending on how much of the farm is covered by coffee, the requirement may actually be less than 20% of the total land area.

5Requirement does not have to be met for initial 3-year certification period, only a plan is required. It is unclear if the requirement will need to be met in full beginning with the renewal audit.



dean cycon

Shouldn’t the title of this article be “Rainforest Alliance Lowers Standards to Seek Greater Licensing Fees from Large Plantations”? This follows the model of TransfairUSA (now rebranded as FairtradeUSA) in lowering standards so that plantations could get certified in a system meant for the 25 million small scale farmers around the world. Transfair fought the farmers year after year and finally just did this anyway, allowing large companies here and large plantations there to get in on the fair trade markets. A great way to increase revenue for the licensing organizations while a confused public doesn’t appreciate the bait and switch tactics of the “certifiers”. This explains why some large coffee companies have said that they would be 100% fair trade in five years – not because they are changing their business practices, but because they managed to get the standards lowered. Another victory for money over values! The struggle continues…

Paul Emerick (Camel & Palm Coffee)

Amen Dean. Amen. All I can say is that from reading this news article, there seems to be a lot of conspiring and manipulation between big bucks companies and the so called ethical/environmental certification agencies at the expense of small coffee farmers and mother nature. The only question I ponder, is what does the certification agencies get out of this besides money? Maybe I am over interpreting this one, but I just don’t see how can I read between the lines any other way.

Sustainable Agriculture Network

The Sustainable Agriculture Network’s vision is a world where agriculture contributes to the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods. According to this vision, the Sustainable Agriculture Standard in its third draft 2016 version proposes a framework of requirements caring for a higher productivity with optimized farm inputs that will enable smallholders to increase their income, satisfy their essential needs and conserve natural resources on their farms rather than exploiting them as part of their income strategy.

The new SAN standard reflects a commitment to biodiversity conservation that is as strong as ever. With each revision to the standard, the SAN incorporates new scientific evidence and sustainable agriculture best practices to ensure that the standard’s requirements are both effective and feasible across the range of crops and countries where the SAN works.

The variability of contexts in which agroforestry crops are grown around the world is something the latest draft to SAN standard is not ignoring, and the standard proposal is focused on achieving positive impacts also at the landscapes level, not just farm level. All SAN criteria for Rainforest Alliance Certification are being optimized in terms of performance for reaching a specific objective or outcome.

The proposed criteria 2.5 (agroforestry system for all crops) and 2.6 (protection of big trees) of the next Sustainable Agriculture Standard provide an effective framework for combining biodiversity protection on coffee farms with productivity targets.

The SAN promotes agroforestry and shade-canopy coverage for shade-tolerant crops (particularly coffee and cocoa) as a way to conserve biodiversity while helping farmers produce a high-quality crop. However, the effectiveness and appropriate design of agroforestry systems varies considerably across the wide range of places where the SAN works. For instance, 40% shade canopy coverage was previously recommended for coffee in much of Central America, but these recommendations are changing in some places as coffee rust decimates coffee crops. In regions where climate conditions permit it, SAN-certified coffee typically has 60-70% shade canopy, or even more. In other areas, such as portions of Brazil where the native vegetation is not forest, shade canopy cover may be less appropriate ecologically or agronomically. Cocoa production is characterized by a similarly complex set of considerations from Central America to West Africa to Indonesia.

In view of the variability of agroforestry systems around the world, the third draft of the new SAN standard seeks to ensure that all farms contribute meaningfully to biodiversity conservation, while providing some flexibility in how this is done. Where it is viable to grow coffee or cocoa under a shade canopy, this is strongly encouraged and can fulfill criterion 2.5. In other cases – where tradeoffs between shade cover and productivity are too severe – farms may choose to provide tree cover or natural habitat in other ways. While the proposed elimination of the 40% shade requirement in the 2010 standard may appear at first glance to weaken certification, in fact if a standard requires practices than are infeasible for farmers, then the likely result is that farmers will abandon certification. When this happens, such farmers are no longer part of a system that ensures myriad other social and environmental sustainability benefits.

Criterion 2.5 is not the only way in which the new draft SAN standard ensures the protection of native ecosystems and wildlife. In fact, all natural ecosystems on certified farms must be identified and conserved as an obligatory condition of certification. Additional habitat should also be conserved around streams and water bodies. And, as an important new addition to the draft standard, large native trees on farms must be protected. On coffee and cocoa farms, such remnant rainforest trees often harbor a very high level of biodiversity. These and other conservation requirements complement the new criterion 2.5 to ensure that all farms protect biodiversity in ways that are appropriate and realistic across the range of contexts where the SAN works. In these ways, the new standard will continue the longstanding emphasis of the SAN and Rainforest Alliance on protecting tropical biodiversity. The benefits of this approach for biodiversity, water quality, and other key sustainability outcomes have been documented by a range of independent scientific studies, summarized in the report available here:

In practice, the current criterion 2.8 has not been implemented fully by farms and hence has not been effective in terms of delivering the objective of providing an agroforestry framework that balances both ecosystem services of trees with profitable production scenarios. A 40% shade tree level in many coffee production areas is impossible to meet and can increase the incidence of fungus attacks or even lead to a lower farm income or financial losses.

The article states that “This latest version contains no mandatory criteria for shade cover for shade-tolerant crops such as coffee.” On the contrary, the new agroforestry criterion 2.5 will be mandatory for all certified farms after a phase-in period of three years and will ask for a significant portion of trees and natural vegetation on farms with the aim to stabilize the agro-ecosystem and increase the environmental services provided on certified farms. The criterion will apply to all crops of SAN’s certification portfolio, not only to coffee, cocoa or other crops not tolerant to shade and therefore will increase SAN’s positive impact on the more than 1.1 million certified farms in 42 countries.

Special emphasis is given to the protection of big trees as habitat for migratory and local bird populations and other wildlife species – a requirement not present in SAN’s current 2010 standard.

The new biodiversity conservation principle is a robust framework for feasibly combining sustainable production and ecosystem protection, but is still a draft. SAN will consider the received comments, and some revisions may be made before we have a final version of the new standard. In the case of ecosystem conservation requirements, the calibration of the SAN requirements (e.g., % tree cover or conservation areas) is complex and will be reviewed in light of the constructive technical input received during the third round of consultation.

Trisha Convey, Rainforest Alliance

The new SAN standard will continue an ongoing commitment to biodiversity conservation that is strong as ever. Special emphasis is given to the protection of trees as a habitat for migratory and local bird populations as well as other wildlife. As with many things affected by the environment, climate change has an effect on agroforestry. While SAN promotes shade-canopy coverage for shade-tolerant crops, the effectiveness varies across geographies, and climate mitigation plays an important role. In regions where climate conditions permit, SAN-certified coffee typically has 60-70% shade or in some cases, an even higher percentage. For more information, please refer to this statement:

Ignacio C

Forests are being lost to clear cutting. Rain Forest Alliance farms tend to be larger farms. Clear cutting virgin forests like they do in Brazil is not good for any Central American Coffee. Nonshaded coffee requires more fertilizer, herbicide, and fungicide. It requires more fertilizer and over time, run off, erosion due to lack of trees. Mowing down a forest is not a way to move forward, no matter what excuse RainForest Alliance uses.

LW Neish

I have been buying Birds and Beans Coffee which has “Bird Friendly Certification”. I sure hope their higher standard has not also been affected by this “relaxation” of standards affecting Rainforest Alliance.

Mandi Caudill, Smithsonian Bird Friendly Coffee

No, rest assured, our high standards have not been affected. We are committed to protecting wildlife habitat and providing assistance to our coffee farmers through our shade grown coffee certification. Our standards are developed by scientists here at the Smithsonian Institution and we are not associated with SAN.

Paul Emerick (Camel & Palm Coffee)

Sounds like to me the standards are being dropped. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in being practical and realistic. I wouldn’t expect Yemen to necessarily qualify for Rainforest Alliance Certification since it doesn’t really have rainforests as we would define it, yet it grows coffee. However, this doesn’t seem to be a good step in the right direction for forest conservation efforts in tropical countries that grow coffee like Brazil.

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