Certified or Not?

Coffee is the second greatest traded global commodity next to crude oil, valued in excess of $11 billion in trade annually. Coffee is grown, harvested and processed in the tropics around the equatorial belt, bordered by the Tropics of Cancer in the north and Capricorn in the south. The societies and economies of the coffee producing countries are primarily developing nations. For many of these countries, coffee comprises over fifty percent of their annual exports. Specialty coffee, coffea arabica species, is mostly cultivated on steep mountainsides at elevations in excess of1000 Meters (3200 ft). Seventy-five percent of the world’s coffee is grown by small families, who are often members of co-ops.

The coffee shrub, originating in the highland rainforests of Ethiopia, growing under a multi-tiered shade tree canopy, yields an average net production of one pound of finished - ready for market - beans. The plot size requirements for a commercially viable harvest are quite substantial. Shade grown coffee trees grow relatively slow, but produce cherries that have higher levels of sugars and require less chemical input than current hybrid coffees. Most often, the sub-species of arabica coffees grown are heirloom varietals, stemming from the bourbon or typica varietals. Shade grown or natural forest coffee makes the smallest footprint on the environment and allows parallel and complimentary production of commerce generating products and activities for the small sustenance farmer.

The sheer size of this industry has no doubt attracted, supported, and been the foundation for development, of some major multi-national corporations. Along with the desire to maximize profits through high volume production and cost reduction, these companies have invested heavily in research and development of high yield, disease resistant hybrid trees. Such hybrids require as much sun as possible to grow at maximum potential. Copious, if not superfluous, amounts of petro-chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, et al, are required by the coffee trees’ root systems to maintain production. This has resulted in the creation of “technified sun” coffee plantations, areas devoid of forest, which, in the tropics, aside from the savannas of Brazil or Africa, are virtually non-existent.

With the presence of big business in developing countries, who have historically operated more with “scorched earth” perspective and policy, and less concern for local communities and their health and prosperity, how is it that we as end users can ensure and support a proper balance of the three forms of capital: economic, environmental and social? Seek out and purchase sustainably produced products.

How are we to know the validity of all such “sustainably produced” claims that are made in the marketplace? Certification is one primary vehicle for accountability, assurance and transparency.

CERTIFIED ORGANIC: Environmentally-based. Sustainable agricultural practices; integrated crop management; waste reduction and recycling; water shed and soil improvement; NO petro-chemical fertilizers, pest controls, herbicides or fungicides. USDA oversees regional, state and local sub-certifiers under National Organic Program (NOP).

FAIR TRADE: Socially-based. Administered by Trans Fair USA. Coops only. Improves farmers’ and workers’ lives through guaranteeing a minimum financial return, determined through fixed differential pricing above globally-traded commodities market pricing. Establishes minimum wage and community improvement guidelines and requirements, as well as improving farm management through administrative assistance. Provides direct market access to member coops, eliminating middlemen.

BIRD-FRIENDLY: Environmentally-based. Administered by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. Verifies minimum number of bird species on coffee farms in conjunction with organic certification and shade tree requirements. Intends to replicate virgin rainforest; increase bio-diversity on farms; create waterway and buffer zones for avian breeding grounds.

SHADE-GROWN: Environmentally-based. No certification. The Specialty Coffee Association of America has formed guidelines, describing three tiered canopy, with upper level as high as 40 – 50 feet high, minimum of 11 species of trees with 60% being native species and legume type, which is good for soil health. Improved coffee quality through slower and fuller maturation of sugars in the coffee cherries.

RAINFOREST ALLIANCE: Socially and environmentally based. Open to coops and estates. Ecosystem protection through reforestation and conservation; shade forest components, minimum wage labor benefits; growers required to make specific donations to improve local communities.

UTZ KAPEH: Environmentally- and socially-based. Limited pesticides; continuous farm improvement; minimum wage and labor protection; on-farm housing and education; direct market access.

Through purchasing CERTIFIED sustainable products, everyone involved benefits.

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