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Coffee: What Do Different Sustainable Coffee Certifications Mean?

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There are several "sustainable" certification labels that appear on coffee. I love coffee, but what do all those environmental coffee labels mean? Is one certification better than the other? When choosing coffee that is reported to be more sustainable than conventional coffee, what should we pay attention to? Thanks to a graduate student of mine (Gloria Lentijo), who worked on biodiversity projects with coffee farmers in Columbia , we have some descriptions of different certification programs.

USADA Organic Certification
Aims to promote and enhance natural soil activity and cycling of resources, which helps to create a rich and fertile substrate for the crop and maintain ecological balance by prohibiting use of artificially produced (synthetic) agrochemicals. Growers must develop procedures to ensure only coffee from certified plantations is harvested, and because most coffee is harvested by hand, containers or bags used during harvest must be clean: they cannot previously have contained or been treated with prohibited substances. Certification agencies not only monitor organic standards during production but also during processing and handling to avoid contaminants coming from sanitizers or chemical products. Although it is not a certification criterion, organic coffee is usually grown with some sort of shade because farmers need the organic matter from fallen leaves from shade trees to fertilize the coffee plots. Organic sun coffee (where coffee bushes are exposed to direct sunlight and no shade trees are used) can be grown, but it is very expensive for farmers to buy the organic matter needed when it cannot be produced on the farm.

Fairtrade Certification
Fairtrade is defined as "an alternative approach to conventional trade that aims to improve the livelihoods and well-being of small producers by improving their market access, strengthening their organizations, paying them a fair price with a fixed minimum, and providing continuity in trading relationships." Fairtrade certification is granted to farmers' cooperatives or associations and not to individual farmers, and premiums are usually invested in projects that benefit the entire community, such as improved schools, clinics, and roads, as well as environmental projects. This certification does not require a specific farming production type, and coffee can be certified Fairtrade whether it is organic or not, whether it is sun coffee or grown under the shade of trees. This certification program does encourage shade and sun coffee farmers to use more environmentally friendly integrated pest management and other sustainable practices like growing tree fences and herbaceous plants to prevent soil erosion or reduce water contamination from coffee processes. For both sun- and shade-grown coffee, the use of harmful agrochemicals is prohibited.

Rainforest Alliance Certification
With this program, coffee is grown on farms where forests, rivers, soils, and wildlife are conserved and workers are treated with respect, paid decent wages, have proper and safe equipment, and are given access to education and medical care. This certification requires that coffee is grown under the shade of trees, but it does not require organic certification. However, it does promote an integrated pest management approach of using smaller amounts of less-toxic synthetic agrochemicals. The criterion for shade is fairly strict in this certification program: it requires at least 12 different native species of shade trees per hectare (or 2.47 acres), and the foliage cover must be at least 40 percent and form two layers to better mimic the differing canopy layers formed by natural forest trees.

Bird-Friendly Certification
The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) gives this certification to farmers in order to promote shade-grown organic coffee plantations that can play a key role in the conservation of our global environment and of migratory birds that find sanctuary in these forest-like plantations. Bird-friendly certification was one of the early environmentally oriented certification schemes for coffee and helped to establish the environmental standards now used by other certifications. It emerged as a response to the studies showing dramatic declines in North American migratory bird species, which were correlated to the shrinking wintering habitats for these species in the tropics. These studies showed that shade-grown coffee plantations in Central and South America were important refuges for migratory birds. The criteria for shade in this certification program are more detailed than those of the Rainforest Alliance program. Bird-friendly certification requires at least 11 species of canopy trees per hectare and the main canopy must be at least 40 feet tall. Additionally, the production area must have at least a 40 percent foliage cover that forms three forest layers, and the coffee must be organic certified (check detailed certification criteria here).

Starbucks C.A.F.E. Practices
C.A.F.E. (which stands for Coffee and Farmer Equity) evaluates the economic, social, and environmental aspects of coffee production in order to ensure that Starbucks's sources of coffee are sustainably grown. Starbucks collaborated with Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), a third-party evaluation and certification firm, to develop the guidelines for the program. C.A.F.E. guidelines focus on four areas: (1) high quality; (2) economic accountability, which means that Starbucks suppliers must submit evidence of how much of the final price paid by Starbucks gets to the farmer; (3) social responsibility that guarantees safe, fair, and humane working conditions; and (4) environmental stewardship, which means that farmers manage waste, protect water quality, conserve water and energy, preserve biodiversity, and reduce agrochemical use. C.A.F.E. insists on extremely high quality standards, both for beans and for the finished, brewed coffee. Although this certification prefers shade-grown coffee farms, sun coffee farms are allowed when environmental conditions are not appropriate for shade-grown coffee. Standards for shade in this certification are not as strict as the Rainforest and Bird-friendly programs. For example, for farms that have shade trees, this certification requires that at least 40% of the coffee production area of the farm have shade trees, and that at least 75% of these trees must be native.

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