Thursday, 7 July 2011

Fair Trade, Organic, and Shade-Grown Coffee: What Do They All Mean?

For those of you who know how good Costa Rican coffee can be, it will be no surprise that upon moving to Costa Rica, ‘hora de café’ became an irreplaceable part of my everyday routine. Before this, I was not a coffee drinker and had no idea of how many choices I faced when trying to find the ‘right’ cup of coffee. Fortunately my fieldwork within rural Costa Rica allowed me to visit a few farms and ask around for myself. 

So, what does it mean to drink a cup of Fair Trade, organic, or shade-grown coffee?

The answers to these questions inevitably vary from place to place and may depend on whom you ask. In this post, my goal is to elaborate on some of the basic facts about what these labels mean for consumers, farmers, and environments alike in the context of my experience in Costa Rica.

The Basics:

Certified Organic Coffee

Organic certification regulations vary from region to region.  Attention to the wording (“certified organic” versus “organic”) will help you look up the specific regulations for your country. Generally speaking, organic coffee certification means farmers do not use synthetic chemicals (e.g., fertilizers, pesticides) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). To become certified as an organic farm, a farmer must maintain cropland chemical free for a number of years (often three or more). Also, routine inspections by independent third parties are continually required.

Although the idea of buying organic is increasingly popular among consumers, it is a market that few small-scale coffee farmers manage to enter. It costs money for a conventional farm to transition to one that is certified as organic. Often small-scale coffee farmers do not have the resources to forego profits for an extended period of time to make this transition. Furthermore, third party inspections can cost from $300 to $500 per day, plus the transportation costs of bringing an inspector to a farm.

Shade-Grown Coffee

Coffee plants (on the right) are mid-size shrubs that are found to produce superior quality beans when grown in the shade. This is because shade beans take longer to ripen and this processes contributes to more complex coffee flavours. Shade is also an added bonus for anyone who is picking coffee beans, done by hand on small-scale farms.  Because coffee farmers are only paid for their ripe fruits, picking the right beans takes skill and potentially many hours under the hot sun. 
Certification as ‘shade-grown’ also appeals to consumers for environmental reasons. Shade-grown farming is often considered better at maintaining increased biodiversity, as compared to industrial agriculture. Since coffee plants are small understory shrubs, they can be intercropped with diverse tropical flora or other cultivated plant species. This diversity may range from ‘native’ tropical trees (often from the bean family) or other foods such as sugar cane.

As you can see, different strategies of intercropping with shade trees can produce very different outcomes, and all shade is not equal! On one extreme you may find coffee in a diverse forested landscape. Coffee would then be part of a multi-cropping production system and may be shaded with many native forest plants, providing from 70 to 100% shade.  The other extreme is found in 'shaded monocultures'. There you would find dense rows of coffee plants interspersed with one or two species of shade trees providing approximately 10-30% shade.  Therefore, unless the term shade-grown is accompanied by a more detailed description, you can’t be sure you are not buying coffee from only a slightly-shaded monoculture.

There are also many specialty certifications, such as 'Bird-Friendly', that aim to support farms with more than just ‘shade’. These certifications require shade-grown coffee to be located along with at least 10 other woody plant species (to ensure greater diversity) and they require some form of organic standards.

Fair Trade Coffee

Fair Trade coffee differs from the above two options because it emerged as part of a shift in thinking towards more socially conscious consumption (‘trade not aid’). Fair Trade certification maintains the strongest social justice standards within major coffee certification strategies while supporting environmentally sustainable agriculture. Fair Trade certification means coffee production must be small–scale, the trade benefits must be shared among farmers, and pesticides and GMOs are banned. Fair Trade attempts to build alternative trade networks that promote safe working conditions, guarantee a payment of minimum prices, provide premiums for social and environmental development (including support for organic and shade-grown initiatives), and support long-term trading relationships.

Does Fair Trade guarantee coffee is shade-grown or organic?

No.  However, many Fair Trade coffees are accompanied by organic as well as other specialty certifications, such as shade-grown or bird-friendly (e.g., Kicking Horse CoffeeHigher Ground Coffee).  It is important to remember that many small-scale coffee growers face significant challenges when attempting to transform their farms to meet strict organic or specialty certification standards. One of the benefits of Fair Trade is that it can provide an opportunity for small-scale or marginalized farmers to enter alternative markets. For example, Fair Trade farmers are guaranteed ‘development premiums’, or support dedicated to locally relevant social or environmental programs. This support can be used in the transition to more environmentally conscious farming practices.


Are these the only options for the conscious consumer?

No.  Many coffee roasters feel these certification systems lack transparency as well as perpetuate social inequalities (marginalizing many small independent farmers). These baristas prefer to establish personal relationships with coffee growers who may maintain crops that would qualify as organic and/or shade-grown but who chose not to enter into global certification markets. These options may not be advertised at your local coffee shop and will require asking a few questions about who grows the coffee and how it is produced. Upon putting this blog together, I took my own advice. On a recent trip to Athens, Georgia, I was surprised to find that the first coffee shop I entered was well-informed about these challenges. The barista told me that they sell coffee from one small farm in Antioquia, Colombia. This choice was intended to support those farmers with limited ability to enter the third party certification markets.

I hope this provides an overview of what our choices mean when supporting different coffee producers and companies alike. I’d be happy to receive any other suggestions related to socially and environmentally conscious coffee choices.


Valkila J. and N. Nygren. 2010. Impacts of fair trade certification on coffee farmers, cooperatives, and laborers in Nicaragua. Agriculture and Human Values 27: 321-333.

Raynolds, L. T. 2000. Re-embedding global agriculture. Agriculture and Human Values 17: 297-309.

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