Organic Production in Coffee Farming: Part 3

We make choices every day, and it is in our interests to be as thorough as we can when making them so that we can be confident in our decisions and reasonably sure they are based on good information rather than erroneous assumptions. When considering organic coffee, there are some common misperceptions that may lead us to make choices that don’t always correspond with our personal goals the way they might appear to on the surface.

Part Three - Consumer Perspective

As part of our continuing examination of how broad-spectrum organic ideals function in the specific context of specialty coffee, we look now at some of the things that influence consumers’ decisions when shopping for coffees:

Health: Is organic coffee healthier than conventional coffees?

There is no reason to believe that organic coffee is any healthier than most conventional coffees. The health issues to consider when looking at coffee are much different than those that apply to fruits and vegetables like apples, berries, or broccoli. In large part this is because of the way coffee is consumed; what we ingest as a cup of coffee is actually 98% water, brewed with roasted coffee beans. The beans themselves are the seeds of a fruit—a coffee cherry--that are removed from the cherry skin and then fermented, washed, dried in the sun, removed from a parchment shell and sorted to remove defects. They are roasted at temperatures between 370-420 degrees F, shedding a final layer of ‘silverskin’ before being ready to grind and extract. These factors make coffee very unlike the produce we eat, where substances applied during cultivation can easily remain in the skin, leaves, and flesh that we ingest.

To date there is no reliable evidence that coffee consumption poses health risks related to chemical use on coffee farms. There are, however, some toxins associated with potential health risks—usually various types of molds—that can sometimes be found in low quality coffee and which develop as a result of poor post-harvest processing and storage. For that reason, those concerned with their personal health are best served pursuing quality coffee that was cared for well by the people who grew and handled it and is therefore far less likely to have been affected by contaminants. Coffee that is high in quality (clean, high-altitude coffees that are carefully fermented, dried, sorted and stored and are clean/free of defect) actually contains many compounds that are known to be extremely good for us; coffee has powerful antioxidants and polyphenols that have been linked to reduced risk for a wide range of common diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Diabetes. Ultimately it is not sensible to think about organic coffee versus conventional coffee as a health issue. There are plenty of reasons to support organic coffee production, but personal health is not one of them.


Pesticides and Herbicides: Are organics the only way to avoid them?

Chemical pesticides and herbicides can damage the ecosystem and there are many types that are completely incompatible with sustainable agriculture. They also present potential hazards for farm workers who must handle them. There is no doubt that a lot of farms abuse chemical inputs and operate with little regard for environmental or human health. Certified organic farms are a good alternative, but there are also plenty of non-certified coffee farms that utilize only manual and biological controls to combat pests and manage weeds, either by choice or by necessity, and that avoid chemical pesticides and herbicides altogether. They don’t qualify for organic certification because they use synthetic fertilizer, but they often qualify for other environmental certifications like those administered by organizations such as Conservation International or Rainforest Alliance.

An important detail to consider when seeking out sustainable coffees is the location of the farm itself. Where the farm is situated is important not just for quality reasons, but also because the environmental conditions in the area play a major role in determining the type of management required maintain healthy and productive coffee trees. Diseases and pests that plague coffee are much more pervasive at low altitudes with warmer climates, and full sun farms usually lack the kind of natural biological buffers that can render chemical controls unnecessary. In contrast, there are many eco-friendly ways to control pests and combat diseases on coffee farms located at high elevations and in biologically diverse areas that are extremely effective when practiced with discipline. The reality is that there are many thousands of non-certified farmers who are outstanding stewards of their environments and who choose a natural approach to pest and plague management instead of relying on chemicals.

Ecosystem Health: Assessing Environmental Impact

A big question that begs asking is this: what is the difference in environmental impact between that of a well-managed coffee farm that uses fertilizer and practices either zero or very limited, highly discriminate pest and disease control (i.e., spot application when needed using the least impactful ingredients) and that of a fully organic farm? Most agronomists and conservation specialists agree that coffee farms that adhere to responsible methods of plant husbandry and farm management--using only approved types of applications, minimally and with precision, accompanied by strict record keeping and regular soil analysis--are indeed very sound from an environmental perspective. The key to knowing what kind of impact a farm is having on the environment is gaining a clear understanding of the specific approach the farmer is taking towards managing his/her farm. For instance, most of the farmers we work with are routinely composting and recycling organic materials from biomass they collect on the farm, including manure, leaf matter, cherry skins, and food waste. They utilize leguminous trees and other nitrogen-fixing plants intercropped with their coffee trees to encourage natural cycling of important nutrients and minimize the need for supplements. They cut invasive weeds with machetes and put mulch on the ground to control new growth rather than apply treatments, because they know that herbicides are not a good solution. They spend hard-earned resources on water treatment systems to clean the water used for fermentation so that it doesn’t damage the ecosystem. Before deciding to apply any supplemental (and expensive) nutrients they conduct leaf and soil analysis to identify need. In short, they are actively working to keep the soil balanced and maintain a healthy environment, and the biodiversity found on these farms often exceeds that of organic farms that only comply with the minimum requirements necessary to obtain certification.

Economics: Should organic coffee cost more than conventional coffee?

Yes, an emphatic yes. In most cases farms experience a significant drop in yield and a rise in labor costs when switching to organic. It is not easy to run a productive organic farm; the amount of organic material or biomass required to give the trees enough nutrition to be productive is massive, and the amount of additional labor needed to make it work can be very costly. To justify the decision to completely give up fertilizer inputs most farmers would need to receive at least double the price they would otherwise get, and even then would likely be sacrificing income. If organic coffee is being sold for similar prices as conventional coffees it makes sense to be skeptical about the benefit farmers are seeing from their coffee production.

That’s the biggest challenge facing the organic movement in coffee right now: farmers usually lose substantial income when they convert to organic. The additional money they receive as a premium for their organic certification is almost always outweighed by the losses in yield and increases in labor costs. Factor in the cost of the certification process itself, the three-year waiting period during which the coffee is ‘in transition’ and can’t legally be sold as organic, the uncertainties arising from a changing climate—including the spread of devastating coffee diseases like Leaf Rust--and the likelihood of success gets even cloudier. It is beyond dispute that the premiums for organic coffee need to rise significantly in order to make conversion to strictly organic methods an attractive proposition for most farmers.

Next: Part IV— The relative value of organic coffee and a few final thoughts.