Organic Production in Coffee Farming: Part 2

Coffee, when cultivated under the right conditions, is a friend to both conservationists and social justice activists. It is one of the only cash crops in the world that can be grown in rustic, bio-diverse environments under native shade canopy. It is a woody perennial that supports the livelihoods of millions of small farmers around the globe and often serves as the last buffer to deforestation. When traded fairly and transparently, it can be a powerful vehicle to help families in developing countries overcome poverty.

Part Two—Organic Coffee and Sustainability

Geoff in Sulawesi discussing parchment quality.

Sadly, the majority of the world’s coffee is not produced in an ecologically sound manner, nor does it deliver significant benefit to those who grow it. There are many approaches to coffee production, but only some of them can be considered truly sustainable and deserving of support.

These are some key things to keep in mind when evaluating sustainability in coffee:

Use of water and management of waste in post-harvest coffee processing.

Many farms utilize too much water to de-pulp, wash, and transport coffees, and often do not have systems in place to prevent environmental contamination from the water after it leaves the wet mill. We consider it critical to minimize water use through recycling of water used in processing and by installing eco-friendly de-pulping systems that dramatically reduce water usage. Cleaning the residual water before allowing it to return to the earth is essential and can be achieved through low-cost, natural filtration systems.

Preservation of bio-diversity on the coffee farm.

This includes the use of nitrogen-fixing shade trees, native tree species, and beneficial ground cover plants as well as the avoidance of pesticides or herbicides that can endanger local flora, fauna, and wildlife. An often overlooked but important part of the equation for maintaining a healthy ecosystem is resisting the temptation to plant too much coffee, instead choosing to keep coffee tree density low and focusing on quality rather than quantity as production value.

Utilization of heirloom coffee tree varieties that prefer shade and are not bred to overproduce.

There are a lot of commercial farms that have industrialized the coffee growing process by planting hybrid varieties designed for prodigious yields and extreme sun tolerance. Most of these operations target maximum volume above all else, and are typically set up as full-sun plantations that require intensive inputs. They tend to produce coffee as a commodity and that approach does not usually align well with sustainability goals.

Farmer and farm worker incomes.

Coffee production is not sustainable if it does not provide opportunity for human development, growth, and investment in future generations. Most certification systems do not address farmer livelihoods in any meaningful way. Ensuring that everyone who is part of the coffee farming process is materially benefitting--not just surviving--is essential, and this means addressing the flawed economics and lack of transparency in the supply chain that have made it difficult for coffee growers to prosper. It also means focusing a lot of attention on taste and quality control, because it is only through creating coffees that stand out for their quality that farmers can access the kind of real premiums that make a difference in their lives and make growing coffee an attractive career choice for the next generation.

At La Soledad they've built a simple but extremely effective water treatment system. 100% of the water that gets utilized at the mill for de-pulping, fermenting and washing coffees gets cleaned to prevent contamination of the ecosystem and the byproducts from the coffee mucilage are utilized for composting purposes.

So where do organics farming systems fit in the larger context of Sustainability? Some would argue that they don’t fit very well, at least not for most farmers, due both to excessive certification standards and the limitations imposed by the way coffee is valued in consuming countries. In one notable study on the subject, Dutch biologist H.A.M. Van Der Vossen writes that “there appears to be considerable injustice between the extreme preconditions demanded for ‘organics’ by the largely urban consumer of the industrialized world and the modest rewards received by the organic coffee growers for their strenuous efforts…this review indicates that fully organic coffee is unsustainable, for smallholder coffee producers in particular. Consequently, there is a need to define what is necessary for the sustainable production of coffee, but it seems clear that some use of inorganic fertilizers is necessary if maintenance of smallholder livelihoods is to be one of the criteria of sustainability.”

Of course no one would claim that organic farming is not a good thing; on the contrary, even the most cynical and disinterested are likely to be attracted to the idea of organic agriculture. It is certain that the small percentage of farmers who manage to succeed in coffee while employing strictly organic methods are deserving of our admiration and support. Yet when considering the larger context of sustainability it is becoming increasingly obvious that we need to broaden our scope and look beyond any single component or certification system. Organic certification in coffee has value and merits attention, but should not be equated with nor thought of as prerequisite to sustainability. There are plenty of coffee growers whose farms are models for sustainable coffee production and who choose to utilize fertilizers as needed to help meet the nutritional demands of their coffee shrubs. Likewise, there are farms with organic certification that do not measure well when evaluated against comprehensive sustainability criteria. It is important to think about all of the interconnected spheres of sustainability—the complex ecological, social, and economic relationships—when determining whether a particular farm or farming system is truly promoting the betterment of our industry and providing a viable long-term solution for both farmers and consumers.

Next: Part III—Organic Coffee from a Consumer’s Perspective