Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Eco-Labeled Coffee - To Reduce Environmental Impact, Make Sure It's 'Shade Grown'

While buying "Organic" and "Fair Trade"-labeled coffee helps reduce pesticide pollution and support the economic well being and health of farmers, only "Shade Grown"-labeled coffee actually helps protect biodiversity.

Such were the findings of a study conducted by researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, titled "Field Testing Ecological and Economic Benefits of Coffee Certification Programs", published in the August, 2007 issue of the scientific journal, Conservation Biology.

As the authors note:

"We found no differences in vegetation characteristics, ant or bird species richness, or fraction of forest fauna in farms based on (Fair Trade and Organic) certification"

"...vegetation variables for shade certification significantly correlated with bird and ant diversity."

Thus, they conclude that:

"Working toward triple certification (organic, fair trade, and shade-grown) at the farm level may enhance biodiversity protection, increase benefits to farmers, and lead to more successful conservation stragtegies in coffee-growing regions."

I am a huge fan (and shameless addict) of good coffee, always buy organic, and buy triple-certified whenever possible. It's great to see studies like this, which are badly needed to help test and verify the ecological validity of environmental claims made by the increasing (and somewhat overwhelming) array of eco-labels.

This study's findings regarding the positive effects of shade-grown coffee on biodiversity are similar to those that have been observed by previous studies - and thus reflect a growing body of science that documents the benefits of buying "shade grown". The biodiversity benefits of Organic and Fair Trade coffee (which do have well-documented social, health, and soil/water quality benefits), have proven less consistent.

The take home message here: if you want to make sure that your coffee not only (1) won't contain nasty toxic pesticide residues and won't pollute local soils and waterways (organic) and the (2) farmer receives a fair price (Fair Trade), but also (3) has minimal impacts on the biological diversity of tropical rainforests, make sure it is labeled as "Shade Grown".


  1. Certification labels have done little but annoy me as little more than marketing agendas these days.

  2. It's actually the greenwashing of labeling that gets me, which is why sites such as are so important. And why I posted this last December:

    Eco-labels are supposed to help you confirm that a product's production, use, or re-use potential is as sustainable as you intend (enabling you to truly vote with your dollars, and feel confident that through your consumer choices, you're helping to reduce pollution and pollution, fight global warming, etc).

    That's why I'm so interested in this subject, and will continue to keep an eye out for studies like this one. I'm doing my best to provide people like you with information that will help guide you towards confidence in your green choices!

    We're obviously not there yet, but we've come a long way.

  3. BTW, the post I'm referring to above is the one from December 2006 titled "Accountability of Ecosystem Impacts in the Green Products Market."