By April Pojman
from Fresh Cup Magazine
recent years, sustainability has become a hot topic in the specialty
coffee industry. But as discussions about organic and fair-trade coffee
have been intensified, it has become increasingly clear that the lesser-known
"third leg" of the coffee sustainability stoolshadeis
wobbling and in need of repair.
While the organic movement
has become practically mainstream and fair-trade coffee has enjoyed
unprecedented growth since 1999, shade coffee has lagged behind. According
to Daniele Giovannucci's 2001 Sustainable Coffee Survey of the North
American Specialty Coffee Industry, 98.7 percent of businesses contacted
were aware of organic coffee, and 82.5 percent knew about fair trade,
but only 76.4 percent were familiar with shade-grown coffee. Moreover,
only three percent of specialty coffee drinkers reported having purchased
Why the lack of awareness?
Despite shade-grown coffee's biological value and potential as a conversation-oriented
marketing tool, it has been plagued by confusion, criticism, and slow
acceptance. Clearly, there's plenty to learn about shade coffee, its
position in the sustainable coffee arena and its enormous marketing
potential for unique specialty coffees.
Shedding Light on Shade
Traditionally, coffee grows in the "understory"
beneath the forest canopy, as part of a larger ecosystem. Different
layers of vegetation provide food and shelter for animals and insects,
soil replenishment through leaf litter, microclimate stabilization,
and protection from soil erosion and water run-off. Under natural
conditions, coffee is one of the most environmentally benign and ecologically
stable cash crops in the world.
But not all shade is equal.
There is a broad variety of shade coffee systems, ranging from monoculturesa
single species shade treeto highly diverse polycultures with
many species. The greater the number and type of shade tree, the greater
the biodiversity of plant and animal species in a given area.
Although an undisturbed
area is always preferable for conservation purposes, extensive and
reliable scientific studies have shown that shaded coffee plantations
can serve as important migration corridors or alternative habitats
for native and migratory animals. In return, shade trees provide many
benefits to coffee farmers, including less need for chemical inputs,
and production of wood, food, and medicinal products that diversify
the family economy.
At the same time, shade
trees provide what re known as "ecosystem services." These
are natural environmental functionssuch as air purification,
nutrient recycling and soil formationthat are very difficult
and costly to achieve without the help of natural processes. According
to a 1997 Nature article entitled "The Value of the World's Ecosystem
Services and Natural Capital," ecosystem services are estimated
to be worth some $33.3 trillion. The article goes on to compare that
figure to the total combined gross national product of all of the
world's economiesonly $18 trillion. Some argue that farmers
should be paid shade premiums based on this idea.
To Certify or Not to Certify?
Shade-grown coffee has enjoyed the spotlight
only sporadically in certain parts of the United States. One of the
main reasons is that shade lacks a worldwide champion like the International
Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) or Fair Trade
Labeling Organizations International (FLO), both of which have created
widely accepted and enforceable definitions and standards for their
Some critics contend that
the term "shade" itself is a misnomer that prevents its
widespread acceptance and that the concept should be re-branded as
"habitat-friendly" or "ecosystem-friendly" to
convey the benefits it provides. Others take the opposite tack, arguing
that the shade concept should refer to the problems it addresses,
such as deforestation.
The U.S. has two separate
shade certification systems intended to ensure that Latin American
shade-grown coffee is produced under a set of scientific guidelines.
One is Eco-OK program development by the Rainforest Alliance and a
network of Latin America environmental organizations, and the other
is the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) criteria. Both systems'
standards require a minimum of 40 percent shade coverage, as well
as specified tree heights and numbers of non-deciduous native tree
Eco-OK is a stand-alone
certification that covers many aspects of farming. It requires a minimum
of 12 species of native trees and at least 70 trees per hectare (one
hectare equals 2.47 acres). It also includes regulations regarding
agrochemical use, water resource, soil and waste management, hunting,
working conditions, and community relations. Within the next year,
Eco-OK auditors will begin to certify for organic and fair-trade criteria
SMBC guidelines focus exclusively
on shade. In September 2000, SMBC began a series of workshops to standardize
the definition of shade and to align itself with organic certifiers
so that a single technician can inspect for shade and organic standards
in one visit. Currently, all SMBC-certified farms must also have organic
Francisco Mena, a general
manager of the Lomas Al Rio coffee farm, recently went through this
new certification process, making Lomas Al Rio the first SMBC-certified
farm in Costa Rica. He explains that an organic inspector visiting
his farm had completed one of the SMBC workshops, so during his inspection
for organic, he recommended that he also inspect for SMBC standards.
Mena approved his idea, and the total cost for certification was around
The trend toward integrating
certification systems is occurring in other areas as well. For example,
FLO criteria for bananas already includes some environmental standards.
And the Eco-OK's Sustainable Agriculture Network is working with FLO,
IFOAM, and Social Accountability International to develop a "Social
Accountability in Agriculture" program. These initiatives are
important, because many farmers find the preparation, transition to
compliance, and certification difficult and costly. For example, farmers
seeking Eco-OK certification must pay for the technicians to perform
site visits and evaluations ($7.50 per hectare), and they must cover
the technicians' travel-related expenses ($100-$150 per day plus travel
expenses, depending on where the nearest inspector is located). Achieving
and maintaining more than one certification is simply beyond the economic
capacity of most producers.
For this reason, a "super
seal" concept that combines organic, shade and fair-trade criteria
is gaining support among importers, roasters, and retailers. In the
Sustainable Coffee Survey, nearly two-thirds of the specialty coffee
industry supported a "super seal" as a simpler way of communicating
sustainability in the marketplace.
Still, there are many other
areas of confusion and contention regarding shade in the coffee industry.
In the Sustainable Coffee Survey report, nearly 45 percent of the
companies claiming to carry shade-grown coffee did not even know who
their shade-certifying agency was. Many importers, roasters and retailers
add to the confusion by selling "verified shade" coffee,
which comes from plantations that have not been certified by Eco-OK
or SMBC but have been visited by someoneoften an importerwho,
without scientific guidelines, checks to make sure shade trees are
present on the farms. Most people seem to agree that certified-shade
is the clearest way to convey the concept in the marketplace and provide
a transparent method of ensuring validity of shade claims.
Shade From Below
There are four broad elements of shade certification
that the industry agrees upon:
> Certification should
not increase the financial burden on farmers.
> Producers who go through the certification process should get
a premium price.
> Certification criteria should be developed with input from farmers.
> Certification should be based on valid scientific data to ensure
that shade increase biodiversity.
Because of the lack of coordination
surrounding shade coffee, most of these points have not been implemented,
and they are actually the source of many farmers' complaints about
shade certification. For example, many producers are interested in
being certified, but they cannot afford it. "When we wanted to
get certified, the price of coffee had already gone down, so it wasn't
very attractive for the producers," says Lorena Calvo, a conservation
biologist studying coffee farms in Guatemala. "[Farmers] have
to pay for the certification, make the changes on the farm and then
look for a market for their coffee."
Farmers also often feel
that if they cannot get a higher price for shade-certified coffee,
the time and expense involved in the certification process cannot
be justified. Asked what the benefits of certification are for farmers,
Francisco Mena answers, "We don't know yet. I expect someone
[might be willing to pay an] additional premium. We're all making
and effort for the good of the whole, but we need motivation."
"A lot of certified
coffee ends up in the market at conventional prices," acknowledges
Christopher Bacon, a doctoral student in environmental studies at
the University of California-Santa Cruz who works with coffee cooperatives
in Nicaragua. "We've been discussing with growers their decision
to become certified, because there is a risk that they won't realize
price premium. They need to consider other positive impacts of shade
production, such as reducing costs or improving working conditions."
For many coffee producers,
there simply isn't enough demand for shade coffee. "Our idea
is to start certifying just a few producers, because the market seems
small," says Nicolas Eberhart, marketing coordinator for the
PROCAP coffee cooperative in Ecuador." Only one importer has
inquired up to now. [We will] begin with the producers who already
have organic certification. The only problem is the shade sealsthere
is so much confusion about them in Ecuador."
In fact, according to the
Sustainable Coffee Survey, of the 6.6 million pounds of coffee that
were shade-certified globally in 200-2001, only 2.1 million pounds
were sold as such. Importers agree that shade certification doesn't
often bring farmers premium prices, but it may help their coffee sell
more quickly. All other factors being equal, roasters are more likely
to purchase certified-shade coffee over an equivalent uncertified
A Shady Future
In order to gain wider appeal, shade-grown
coffee needs a unified front to champion a biodiversity- and farmer-friendly
definition of shade and to coordinate compliance and education around
that definition. This is hardly a quick fix, but it's the only way
that shade will gain more respect and popularity.
In May 2001, five non-profit
organizations that work on coffee conservation issues (Conservation
International, Consumer's Choice Council, Rainforest Alliance, Smithsonian
Migratory Bird Center, and the Summit Foundation) took a step toward
creating a unified front by releasing a document entitled "Conservation
Principles for Coffee Production." The principles were designed
to provide common ground for conservation groups to work with other
environmental movements and coffee businesses. They can also help
importers and roasters develop sourcing guidelines and assist banks
and foundations in deciding which coffee development projects to fund
and how to evaluate them.
There also remains a need
for a widespread educational campaign to establish a single definition
of "shade." Many growers still don't know what the shade
standards are or how to get certified. As a result, some retailers
are carrying coffee with "shade-grown" claims that cannot
be verified. More importantly, even with all of the debate in the
industry over shade-grown coffee, most consumers don't even know that
it exists or what it means. The concept of shade-grown coffee can
be difficult to explain on a supermarket shelf to consumers who lack
prior knowledge about how coffee is produced and what a difference
shade can make.
There are hopeful signs,
however. A 1999 survey by the Hartman Group indicates that 86 percent
of American consumers believe that there is a connection between the
health of the environment and their own well-being. And a March 2002
survey by the Songbird Foundation shows that 75 percent of Seattle-area
coffee drinkers are likely to switch to shade-grown coffee if they
understand the implications. Based on their experiences, 83 percent
of those who have purchased sustainably produced coffee say they would
buy it again.
Clearly, the coffee industry's
move toward sustainability will not be complete until the shade "leg"
of the stool in securely affixed.