Certified coffee, good for the planet?

You crave coffee, go to the market and must choose between two options: fairtrade organic versus non-certified coffee. The first option costs few cents more, but as the conscious consumer you are, you decide to choose the first one. You go home happy with your coffee and satisfied for your positive impact in the world. Right?

Not so fast, consumer. Research findings from the Division of Bioeconomics at KU Leuven showed that Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) for food production, such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, might not deliver all the benefits they promise. By looking at economic and ecological indicators in two coffee producer countries, Ethiopia and Uganda, they discovered that VSS do bring positive effects but, for each benefit they bring, a drawback is generated: the famous trade-offs!


For instance, Fairtrade and Organic standards contribute to carbon storage and biodiversity, but not really for yield and income. On the other hand, Rainforest Alliance, 4C and UTZ generate positive effects on yield, income and reducing poverty, while carbon and biodiversity are negatively impacted. In summary, “none of the schemes improved both ecological and economic dimensions”, highlighted Miet Maertens, leader of the research.


If you are feeling discouraged now, don’t be! The existence of certified products available on supermarket shelves is already a victory for the environment and for farmer’s livelihoods. Although results differ for each country, certification still brings more benefits when compared to conventional products at the end of the day. What the research findings warn us is that the increase demand for those products alone is not enough. There is an urgent need of high-quality interdisciplinary research on the sustainability impact of VSS not only on the farm, but also in the surroundings, calculating spillover effects. So join me: get your certified coffee and your research skills, let’s make science!


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