by Thomas Dietsch
Since its introduction at the Sustainable Coffee Congress in 1996, certified shade-grown coffee has emerged as a growing segment of the specialty coffee market. Several certification programs now certify shade coffee grown on farms that protect biodiversity.
A recent article published by my coauthor, Alexandre Mas, and me, "Linking shade coffee certification to biodiversity conservation: butterflies and birds in Chiapas, Mexico," provides the first direct evidence that shade-grown coffee certification is an effective conservation tool.
We compared the biodiversity found on individual coffee farms using growing practices of different management intensity. Those farms eligible for certification produced the highest conservation benefits. The study appeared in the June 2004 edition of the journal Ecological Applications.
We included programs with publicly available criteria for certifying shade-grown coffee, which included the only two programs currently in use:
and several programs never implemented:
In Chiapas, Mexico, we sampled the structure and diversity of shade trees in five management systems that are using growing practices ranging from traditional rustic management to a more intensive system, a shade monoculture, using only one tree species for shade.
Coffee farm on left uses a rustic management system while the farm on the right uses a shade monoculture.
Mexico was an ideal location for the study because of the wide range of management practices used by farmers and because, "Mexico produces more certified organic coffee than any other country and, while not the focus of this study, organic coffee production techniques, which prohibit agro-chemical use, provide an important complement to management of the shade overstory in conserving biodiversity."
We were able to work on what appears to be the oldest certified organic coffee farm in Mexico and Central America, Finca Irlanda, which was first certified Biodynamic in 1928, a stricter version of organic certification used in Europe.
This evaluation is based on
an article in Ecological Applications.
During the course of the study, significant philosophical differences emerged between the programs. Rainforest Alliance uses less strict criteria as a strategy to engage farmers who would otherwise be hesitant to participate.
Unlike the Smithsonian program, Rainforest Alliance does not require organic certification as a prerequisite. Once farmers are enrolled, Rainforest Alliance works with them to reduce chemical use and to increase the use of shade trees.
Consequently, "Just as all shade is not created equal, all certified shade-grown coffee programs may not produce the same conservation benefits." Nonetheless, criteria for each of the currently operating shade-grown coffee certification programs successfully eliminated farms of lower conservation value.
We suggest setting specific, realistic conservation goals based on habitat use by wildlife found on certified farms and encouraging protection of forest fragments. Currently, many farmers and cooperatives include forest fragments as part of their land management.
Enjoy shade grown coffee.
In the meantime, coffee consumers can have confidence that current certification programs distinguish farms with beneficial levels of shade for biodiversity conservation.