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Opinion: New Rainforest Alliance Shade Requirements Fall Short

coffee cherries

After many months, the latest revision to the 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, such as 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 criteria for coffee from the 2005 SAN standard. Note that while these were not critical (required) criteria, 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 percent 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 percent of the production area. Shade must be established in the remaining 75 percent of the production area within five years. Farms in areas where the original natural vegetation is not forest must dedicate at least 30 percent 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 percent of the total farm area (one-third of the 30 percent) during the first three years of the plan.

The 2017 Standard

The standard lists dozens of criteria, 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 percent 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 percent of Level C criteria, 90 percent of Level B criteria, and 50 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 as previous standards.

This new criterion does not address shade density/canopy density. It targets 15 percent 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 percent canopy cover and 12 native tree species per hectare in the criterion, it states that farms can meet those parameters or have 15 percent 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 achieved some specific benchmark.

Specifically, as a Level A criterion, the 15 percent 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 percent 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 them must be met to certify.

In other words, a coffee farm with less than 15 percent 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 percent 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 farms 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 percent 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 regarding “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.




Who was it that did the study that came to the conclusion that shade grown coffee tastes better? I am not against sustainability or shade grown coffee, but there is no proof it tastes better. I wish that promoters of shade grown coffee would not try to sell their products in which they are fooling people into falsely believing that shade grown tastes better. But what do I know, I have only been roasting for 20 years.

Julie Craves

I deliberately noted that light levels cause physiological changes and it CAN impact cup quality, not that it absolutely does. The SCAA provides many details on these potential impacts, including citing studies, here:

Overall, I agree that cup quality is not the best reason to support shade or ecologically-friendly coffee, and it’s not one I focus on.


Thanks for the reply. That is an interesting article that I have read before. The one thing I would caution is that if you look at the list of references cited, they are not coffee people for the most part and are defiantly not coffee quality people, they are scientists in agroforestry and biology.

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