Do certification labels really matter?

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As consumers grow weary over subpar food regulations at the federal level, manufacturers are increasingly seeking ways to help shoppers distinguish their products from the sea of conventional (and often irresponsibly produced) items. Certification labels—sometimes referred to as eco labels—are skyrocketing in popularity. Among the most ubiquitous? Certified Organic, Fair Trade, Non-GMO Project, and Gluten Free. But while certifications signal something to the consumer, do they actually have tangible benefits for the farmers who grow the raw materials?

Chances are you have also seen the Rainforest Alliance Certified logo—characterized by a little green frog—on packages of natural chocolates, coffee, tea, or fruit juices. But what exactly does the logo mean? And how does it differ from the wealth of other eco labels available?

After researching the stipulations involved with the Rainforest Alliance Certification, it was time to venture into the belly of the beast and see the positive changes, if any, gleaned from sustainable agricultural methods first hand.

Destination? Guatemala.
Crop? Coffee.
Certification requirements
Obtaining and maintaining Rainforest Alliance Certification is tough. Farms must adhere to stringent standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network; including ecosystem and water conservation, wildlife protection, safe working conditions, and waste management, among others. There are 100 different criteria in total, 14 of which are critical, and absolutely necessary. During certification evaluation, the farm must score at least 80 percent adherence to achieve certification. Independent auditors inspect the farm every year in order to ensure criteria are upheld.

About the Rainforest Alliance Certified label
If a manufacturer wants to display the “little green frog” on their package, the product must contain at least 30 percent Rainforest Alliance Certified content on the understanding that it takes time to build supply chains. But there are a few conditions: The percentage must be labeled on package to ensure transparency, and the company must commit to scale up by 15 percent each year until the product reaches 100 percent certified materials.

Making compost
La Azotea, a coffee farm located just outside the historic city of Antigua, Guatemala, lies in the shadow of three volcanoes, one of which emits smoke almost daily. The Rainforest Alliance Certified farm follows a rigorous composting system. Workers mix coffee pulp and horse manure into long rows, and let it sit and bake in the sun.

The composting process
“After 38 to 40 days, the compost is moved into a dark indoor shed for 8 days, where it’s processed by worms—creating a rich, dark soil,” says Vicente Cuyuch, compost manager at La Azotea. “The compost is applied either at the roots or sprayed directly onto the coffee plant.”
Along with producing a stronger and healthier plant, using compost enhances the end product too—many say La Azotea’s coffee is perfectly balanced.

Fostering biodiversity
In the Northwest region of Guatemala, nestled deep into the mountainous landscape rests ADESC (Asociación de desarrollo Social Los Chujes), a group of 68 small coffee farms certified by the Rainforest Alliance. 5,250 feet in elevation, the farm certainly looks like a rainforest. The coffee plants are small and shrub-like, and stand no more than eight feet tall (making it easier for workers to harvest by hand).

Most coffee in Guatemala is grown in the shade a portion of the year. Tall, feathery gravilea trees are planted to provide shade and humidity during the dry summer months. Other vegetation like mango and banana trees are planted to encourage bird populations and butterflies. When standing in the coffee grove you can hear wildlife in the area. The presence of spiders on the coffee plants is a hallmark of a healthy forest, says Mario Lopez, agriculture project coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance. ADESC sells all of it’s coffee to Nespresso—a company that encourages sustainable coffee agriculture.

Water filtration
Cultivating larger trees amidst smaller coffee plants fosters a stronger root structure, which prevents erosion of the mountainside. Here, we see when soil contains more plants, it filters water better, leading to clearer rivers. This demonstrates the importance of having a complex plant system (multiple types of plants growing in one area rather than one species).

Dual fertilizers
Farms aren’t required to be organic in order to be Rainforest Alliance Certified. But they are prohibited from using most pesticides or planting GMOs (more on this later). Organic coffee in the Guatemalan highlands actually has lower yields and lower quality: the berries are smaller, and the acidity is unbalanced. One farmer said organic coffee must be grown in 100 percent shade all the time—which leads to more bugs.

Some conventional farmers are untrained in responsible agriculture: fertilizers are often overused because they assume the more chemicals, the better. At ADESC, soil samples are collected and analyzed every year to determine what type and how much fertilizer—a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—is needed. Organic fertilizer, made from the outer layer of the coffee beans (called parchment or pulp), is used to improve the quality of the soil. Farmers apply both types of fertilizer in a half-moon shape around the base of the coffee plant, and cover it with soil to prevent runoff into rivers.

Meet Latissia Monzón Gómez
Latissia Monzón Gómez has been working with the coffee association for twelve years. She owns a beautiful 8.6 acre parcel of land in ADESC that she calls The Garden. It’s a steep farm, and it contains step-like terraces built in order for farmers to access the plants. Prior to obtaining Rainforest Alliance Certification, Latissia saw climate change first hand: it used to rain a little bit every day, but now there are large storms, followed by long droughts—and she felt helpless against it.
“We don’t have to be a part of this program, but we do it voluntarily because we have to adapt to and mitigate climate change,” explains Gómez. “To mitigate means to reduce our impact—we are responsible for the environment. Although my farm is tiny, maybe it can inspire others to be more sustainable.”
Gómez frequently gives speeches to other coffee farms in the area to advocate for environmentally friendly agriculture.

While there are no genetically engineered crops the Rainforest Alliance normally certifies, the organization takes a strong stance against GMOs—especially considering there have been transgenic experiments in coffee, albeit with no field deployment.
“Potential health impacts aside, there are significant ecological risks that we believe have not been sufficiently studied,” says Chris Wille, chief of sustainable agriculture fore the Rainforest Alliance. “These include possible impacts on pollinators and other wildlife, potential runaway hybridization, and the risk of GMOs turning invasive. The study results are all over the map.
“Anyways, with a large percentage of consumers and even entire countries (for example, Germany) avoiding GMOs like the plague, green-minded food companies and retailers don’t want GMOs, certified or not.”

Certification challenges
Apart from following the practices required, many farm owners think training their workers is the hardest aspect of sustainable agriculture.
“You have to get the workers to understand the impacts agriculture has on the environment,” says Oscar Ramos, farm manager at La Azotea. “If someone has been farming with agrochemicals for decades, it’s a lot to ask to have them change their methods. Once they understand sustainability, they start to care. And then they start to take pride in their work.”

Photos courtesy of the Rainforest Alliance.