The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal means that some or all of the ingredients are sourced from farms that comply with the standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network, which aims to promote sustainability in farming and protect farmers, forests, wildlife, and local communities. The seal is verified through on-farm inspections.
Note: this review is for the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal on food only.
This seal can be found on:
Processed foods, fruits and vegetables, coffee and tea, chocolate, nuts, vegetable oil and shortening
ORGANIZATION: Rainforest Alliance
LABEL STANDARDS: Available for download from the Sustainable Agriculture Network website.
What this seal means
Percentage of the product’s contents that need to be certified
Standards: a closer look
The critical criteria in the area of biodiversity conservation include:
- Prohibition on destroying high conservation value areas, which would include “concentrations of biological diversity,” “intact forest landscapes,” and “rare, threatened or endangered ecosystems, habitats or refugia.” Converting these areas to farm fields would constitute destruction and is prohibited.
- In the five-year period prior to the date of the initial application for certification, or January 1, 2014, whichever date is earlier, the farm is required to conserve all natural ecosystems and not destroy forests or other natural ecosystems.
- Production activities that degrade any protected area are prohibited.
- Hunting or killing endangered or protected animals is prohibited.
The critical criteria in the area of natural resource conservation include:
- Wastewater from processing operations is not discharged into aquatic ecosystems unless it has been treated and meets quality parameters.
- Untreated sewage is not discharged into aquatic ecosystems.
- The farm has developed and implemented an integrated pest management plan that is based upon the prevention and monitoring of pests and aims to avoid economically significant crop losses while reducing pesticide risks. See more info below in the section on “pesticide use.”
- The use of 152 specific pesticides is prohibited, and only pesticides that are legally registered in the country can be used.
- Pesticide application by aircraft complies with SAN requirements for aerial fumigation.
- No GMOs are permitted.
- The use of human sewage in production or processing activities is not allowed.
The critical criteria in the area of improved livelihoods and human well-being include:
- Forced, compulsory, or slave labor is prohibited.
- The mistreatment of workers and sexual harassment are not allowed.
- All forms of discrimination are prohibited.
- Workers have the right to establish and join worker organizations of their own free choice.
- Workers are paid minimum wage or wages are negotiated collectively, whichever is higher.
- The worst forms of child labor are prohibited.
- Child laborers under 15 years are not contracted, and conditions for young workers are met.
- No avoidance of benefits, such as employing contract or temporary workers for permanent or ongoing tasks.
- A grievance mechanism is in place to protect workers’ rights.
- Regular working hours for all workers do not exceed 48 hours per week, with at least one full day of rest for every six consecutive days worked.
- All overtime is voluntary and paid at the rate required by applicable law or as collectively negotiated, whichever is higher.
- Farmers, workers, and their families have access to drinking water.
- Basic conditions for housing are met, if housing is provided to workers and their families.
- An Occupational Health and Safety plan is in place.
- Personal Protective Equipment is provided free of cost to workers who handle pesticides or other hazardous materials.
- Training on pesticide risks is provided for pesticide handlers.
- All pesticide handlers use bathing facilities after handling pesticides.
- Women who are pregnant or nursing are not assigned to activities that pose a risk to the mother, infant, or fetus.
- Legitimate right to use the land is demonstrated by ownership, leasehold, or other legal documents or by documentation of traditional or community land rights.
- Activities diminishing the land or resource use rights or collective interests of communities are conducted only having received the communities’ free, prior and informed consent.
The implementation of an integrated pesticide management plan is a critical criterion. The farm management develops and implements a plan based on the prevention and monitoring of pests and aims to avoid economically significant crop losses while reducing pesticide risks. Pests are managed using biological controls and other non-chemical methods where feasible. When pesticides are used, preference is given to non-restricted low toxicity pesticides, and pesticides are applied only to the parts of the crop affected by pests. The use of substances on the SAN List of Prohibited Pesticides is not allowed.
This list of prohibited substances contains 152 pesticides, including those that have been recognized by international agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Panel of Experts on Pesticide Management, as highly hazardous. SAN includes other pesticides on the prohibited list, such as atrazine, because of scientific evidence of water contamination.
Three neonicotinoid pesticides, including imidacloprid, are prohibited because they significantly affect bee populations, other pollinators, and birds. They can also persist in soils for years and can leach into waterways and groundwater, where they have depleted insect abundance and diversity. Other neonicotinoids, such as acetamiprid, are not on the prohibited list.
In terms of the pesticides that are prohibited, SAN does not take a precautionary principle approach to pesticide use. Newer toxic and synthetic pesticides are not immediately prohibited, as they are in organic agriculture. Rather, newer pesticides can be used. For example, the SAN standard allows the use of glyphosate, a widely used herbicide which is listed as probably carcinogenic to humans by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), based on strong evidence that exposure to glyphosate or glyphosate-based formulations is genotoxic. Studies in experimental animals and in vitro humans also provide strong evidence that glyphosate can act to induce oxidative stress.
For pesticides that are allowed, SAN recognizes specific risks and has requirements to mitigate those risks to human workers/bystanders, aquatic life, wildlife, and pollinators. SAN’s list of pesticides that can be used with risk mitigation contains 168 pesticides, including herbicides like 2,4-D and insecticides like chlorpyrifos.
The use of pesticides with risk mitigation is part of the continuous improvement system. This means that these pesticides can be used without risk mitigation for the first years of certification. A product with the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal therefore could have been grown with these pesticides. By year three of certification, the risk mitigation requirements have to be met.
The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal on a package of coffee does not assure consumers that the coffee beans were “shade grown.” Coffee farms producing shade-grown beans maintain tree canopy as habitat for native and migratory birds and other wildlife. Farms can be certified without canopy cover for shade-tolerant crops.
If the farm or group of member farms has less than 10 percent total native vegetation cover (or less than 15 percent total native vegetative cover for farms growing shade-tolerant crops), the farm management and group administrator develop and implement a plan to progressively increase or restore native vegetation. This is a continuous improvement criterion in Level C, which means the plan has to developed by the third year of certification.
The Rainforest Alliance Certified seal does not guarantee that shade-tolerant crops like coffee or cocoa were shade grown. The standards indeed include a criterion stating that farms with agroforestry crops, such as coffee, must provide at least 40 percent tree cover, with at least 12 different tree species. But this is not a critical criterion; it is a continuous improvement criterion in Level A, which means it does not necessarily have to be met, even by the sixth year of certification.
The seal does not mean that products are non-GMO. It means that the certified crops do not consist of genetically modified organisms and are not repackaged or processed with GMO products. This is a critical criterion, which means it must be met for initial certification. The seal does not mean that other, non-certified ingredients in a multi-ingredient food are produced without GMOs (such as sugar in a chocolate bar made with Rainforest Alliance certified cocoa).
No. Producers do not have to meet all the requirements in the standards to be certified. The seal can appear on a product label when only a percentage -- as low as 30% -- of the ingredients are certified, even in single-ingredient products like a bag of coffee beans.
Board of Directors: Yes. The members of the board of directors are listed on the website, both for the Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network.
Financial information: Yes. Financial information for both Rainforest Alliance and the Sustainable Agriculture Network is available on their respective websites. The Rainforest Alliance also publishes a list of major donors.
Standards development: The standards are developed by the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). SAN has an International Standards Committee (ISC) which serves as the advisory committee to the Board of Directors on standards, and the Board of Directors approves the final versions of all standards. ISC members declare any potential conflict of interest regarding the development or revision of standards, and the Secretariat can exclude a member from a specific process due to a specific conflict of interest.
Verification: Yes. Verification is free from conflict of interest.
Standards development: Yes. The standards were developed with broad public and industry input by the Sustainable Agriculture Network.
Standards updates: Yes. When the standards are updated, public consultations are carried out and organizations and individuals in different countries are asked to comment on the revised standard. The standards are posted online for public review and comment.