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Coffee corner: sustainable coffee at a glance.

After what seems like an eternity of slow progress, a barrage of media exposure has helped raise consumer awareness of the growing crisis in the world coffee market.

Americans are taking notice and beginning to buy their cup of coffee with an extra shot of consciousness. The term for this practice is commonly referred to as sustainability. While there is no single, clear-cut agreed-upon definition in the industry, sustainable coffee, logically, is coffee grown in a manner that is kind to both the environment and to the people who farm it.

Coffee can be certified as sustainable in three ways: Fair Trade, bird-friendly/shade-grown, and certified organic. Now that nearly half of all shoppers consider the ethical dimension of goods, it is important for retailers to understand these terms and their basic definitions in order to gain a competitive edge, reduce costs, and improve the health of both planet and people.

Fair Trade Certified

Fair Trade is perhaps the strongest representation today of efforts to bring greater social and economic sustainability to the coffee sector, particularly with regard to small producers. The chief concern of Fair Traders is to ensure that the world's coffee farmers receive a fair price for their harvest in order to achieve a decent living wage. This enables farmers to stay on their land, put food on their tables, and keep their children in school instead of working in the fields.

At the heart of the program, importers and roasters agree to develop direct, long-term trade relationships with producer groups, cutting out middlemen and bringing greater commercial stability to an extremely unstable market. The Fair Trade movement is based upon the idea that producers in developing countries are capable of achieving economic success, provided they" receive fair prices in international markets for what they produce. Roasters then pass the savings on to the farmers in the form of a minimum Fair-Trade price, which currently ranges from $1.26 to $1.41 per pound, depending upon the coffees' origin and additional organic certification. If world prices rise above this floor price, farmers will be paid a small ($0.05/pound) premium above market price. Coffee importers also must give a certain amount of credit to farmers against future sales.

In return, Fair Trade farmers are required to grow their crops with respect to the environment, without the use of pesticides (which usually makes Fair Trade coffee certified organic and shade-grown as well) and to bar child labor during the school year.

The Fair Trade movement is not an overnight sensation. In fact, the first Fair Trade certification initiative was hunched by Max Havellar in Holland in 1988. Max Havellar sought to push Fair Trade coffee beyond the small, mission-driven alternative trade organizations by essentially enticing bigger, profit-driven coffee roasters and pushing Fair Trade into mainstream supermarkets. In 1997, the international umbrella agency Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO) was formed to set criteria defining Fair Trade products, including coffee, tea, bananas, cocoa, sugar, honey, and orange juice.

Fast forward to 2006, when several national Fair Trade chapters were organized by the FLO. Among them was TransFair USA, the only independent U.S. certifier of Fair Trade products. TransFair USA assumes a dual role through certification and aggressive promotion and consumer education around Fair Trade coffee.

Key industry associations have served as catalysts for enhancing awareness in the industry. The SCAA formed a Fair Trade Task Force in 2000 to ensure that its members understood Fair Trade issues and opportunities, and in 2001, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with TransFair USA to collaborate in a joint effort to improve the livelihoods of coffee farmers. The National Coffee Association has also begun incorporating sustainability issues into its membership discussions.

Bird Friendly/Shade Grown

Almost interchangeable, these terms generally describe coffee that is grown under a natural canopy of shade trees that protect the bird habitat rather than stripping the land of trees to maximize production. Shade-grovel coffee is often grown on small farms using traditional techniques and provides food and shelter for songbirds, as well as other animals and plants. As rainforests disappear, shade coffee farms offer one of the last places for birds to feed and rest in many tropical regions.

Beyond file benefit flint shade provides to migratory birds, it also affects coffee grown at high altitudes. The shade slows down the coffee growth, which results in the production of more sugars and the chemicals responsible for the acidity, in coffee.

Interest in shade-grown coffee has risen in response to the rapid deforestation of large areas of Latin America for coffee production but unlike organic and Fair Trade certification, there is still no standard, enforceable label for shade-grown coffee. A number of organizations ale working to establish a standard label, including the Rainforest Alliance's ECO-OK program and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center's "Bird-Friendly" criteria.

Rainforest Alliance Certified

The Rainforest Alliance's Eco-OK program was the first coffee certification program to include shade trees in the criteria as part of overall land stewardship and watershed protection. Eco-OK criteria also include specific social standards that address worker safety and living conditions.

Social and environmental criteria for Rainforest Alliance Certification involves nine universal principles, including ecosystem conservation; wildlife conservation; fair treatment trod good conditions for workers; fostering community relations; integrated crop management; complete, integrated management of wastes; conservation of water resources; soil conservation; mid planning and monitoring.

When they choose coffee with the Rainforest Alliance Certified label, consumers are helping protect the rainforest, arid ensuring that farmers are receiving fair prices and workers are earning livable wages. For a complete listing of Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee, visit

Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center "Bird-Friendly" Certified

In 1997, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC) established a set of criteria for labeling shade-grown coffee. According to the SMBC, Bird-friendly coffees are the only coffees on the market that are certified as shade-grown and organic and involve conservation of the entire living habitat that supports migrant birds. These criteria are used for the awarding of the "Bird-Friendly" seal.

Companies that sell Bird-Friendly coffees contribute 25 cents per pound to support SMBC research and conservation programs. For a complete list of Bird-Friendly certified coffees, visit

Certified Organic

Produced by an approach that views the farm as an ecosystem, organic coffee is coffee that has been produced without the employment of pesticides or herbicides. The definition of organic can also be extended to include an emphasis on recycling, composting, soil health, and biological activity with a goal of long-term protection of the farm environment.

In 1990, Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, requiring the USDA to develop national standards for products labeled "organic." The National Organic Program (NOP) requires that agricultural products labeled as organic originate from farms or handling operations certified by a state or a private, third-party entity (such as The Organic Crop Improvement Association and Quality Assurance International) that has been accredited by the USDA. In 2002, the USDA unveiled a list of regulations coffee growers must follow before they can display the "USDA Certified Organic" seal.

According to the NOR products labeled "100-percent organic" must contain only organically produced ingredients. Products labeled "organic" must consist of at least 95-percent organically produced ingredients. Products meeting the requirements may display the seal.

Certified Organic coffees are grown without the usage of any of the common pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used in producing regular coffee. Similar to Fair Trade, the purchase of Certified Organic coffee creates the ability for farmers to compete against large coffee interests.

Organically grown coffees can usually be considered shade-grown as well. This is because the canopy of trees provide several necessities to the organic coffee farm, including leaf litter (which acts as a natural fertilizer), wildlife species that serve as a pest control, and moisture retention. However, it should be noted that not every organic coffee farm is also a shade farm. In Columbia, Costa Rica, and Brazil, for example, a few organic coffee farms still grow coffee under full sun or limited, specialized shade.
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Title Annotation:BEANS & LEAVES
Author:Montalvo, Kristin V.
Publication:Gourmet Retailer
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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