Vanderhaegen, K., Teopista Akoyi, K., Dekoninck, W., Jocqué, R., Muys, B., Verbist, B., Maertens, M., 2018. Do private coffee standards ‘walk the talk’ in improving socio-economic and environmental sustainability? Global Environmental Change 51: 1-9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2018.04.014
When you walk down the coffee aisle at the grocery store, you’ll notice that there are a variety of private coffee certifications, denoted as shiny symbols stamped on the front of coffee bags. Fair Trade Certified™ stamps, for example, are given to farms that meet social, environmental, and economic standards with the goal of providing sustainable livelihoods to farmers. Another certification, Rainforest Alliance Certified™, which is recognized by a frog stamp, has similar goals to Fair Trade and focuses on conserving biodiversity — the number of different plant and animal species — present on farms as well as improving the well-being of farmers. When I buy products with these certifications, I have an image in my mind of an environmentally conscience farms that conserve biodiversity, where the farmers earn a living wage. But is this mental image reality or fantasy?
A Case Study in Uganda
In order to determine whether coffee certifications aligned with consumer expectations, a team of researchers led by Koen Vanderhaegen at Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven in Belgium along with colleagues from the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences and the Royal Museum for Central Africa traveled to the Mt. Elgon region in Eastern Uganda. This region is the main coffee producing area in Uganda and is characterized by volcanic soils and generally small (less than 1 hectare or 2.5 acres) coffee farms.
The researchers compared the environmental and economic characteristics of two types of certified coffee farms to non-certified farms. The first group of farms were dual-certified and held both Fair Trade and Organic certifications. The second group of farms were triple-certified by UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C. It is important to note, that all certifications mentioned in this study are from private entities and not through government programs, such as the USDA Organic certification.
A total of 595 farming households, composing all three groups, were surveyed about their social and economic conditions. Each household also reported information about their coffee fields, which resulted in the researcher obtaining detailed information from 1,183 fields (many households have multiple fields). Surveys gathered information relating to the use of pesticides, production of coffee, soil management, and farmer income in each of the households. Of the 1,183 coffee fields, the researchers chose 74 to visit and sample extensively. These 74 fields comprised 18 with dual Fair Trade and organic certification and 19 with triple UTZ-Rainforest Alliance-4C certification; each of these 37 fields was paired with a non-certified field. The researchers took soil samples to determine the health of the soil and recorded the number of plants and insect species present in the fields to measure biodiversity.
The environmental and economic trade-offs of coffee certification
Private certifications of coffee farms did impact coffee productivity, labor intensity, soil quality, and biodiversity on farms, but not in ways that consumers may expect.
Vanderhaegen and colleagues reported their findings in the scientific journal Global Environmental Change. Private certifications of coffee farms did impact coffee productivity, labor intensity, soil quality, and biodiversity on farms, but not in ways that consumers may expect. For example, farms that were dual Fair Trade-Organic certified had higher ant and beetle abundance, a larger number of tree species, and better soil quality, but had lower coffee production. Even though these farms sold their coffee at a premium due to their certifications, it was not sufficient to make up for the loss in production compared to other farm systems. As a result, Vanderhaegen and his colleagues reported the lowest coffee and household income from these farms. Additionally, the highest rate of poverty in the study was found in farms that were dual Fair Trade-Organic certified.
In contrast, farms that were triple certified by UTZ, Rainforest Alliance, and 4C had the highest coffee production leading to the highest coffee and household income and the lowest poverty rate amongst the three groups of farmers. However, these farms also had the highest rate of chemical pesticide and fertilizer use, leading to the lowest soil quality and biodiversity of plants and animals on these farms. If you take these results together, it is clear that there is a trade-off between environmental and economic benefits in private certifications in this study system.
Implications and Future Directions
These results could have important implications for farmers that are seeking certifications, for certification agencies, and for consumers. However, it is important to note that these results are case and location specific. While Vanderhaegen and his colleagues note that similar results have been reported for other farming systems, there have also been contradictory reports, especially from farm systems in other countries. Additionally, since Vanderhaegen and his colleagues focused on farmer households, they didn’t measure economic or social benefits at the town or village level. These results could be used to develop better certifications that address both economic and environmental sustainability, which would likely require more strict enforcement of certification standards in the future.
So, what can you do as a consumer? Educate yourself about the different coffee certifications. If you’d like to take it a step further, look up what the research says about the success of certification in the specific region you like to buy your coffee from. While private certifications may not deliver everything we imagine in our mental images, they still benefit the environment or the farmers.
Feature Image: Photo credit: Pixabay.