Organic Production in Coffee Farming: Part 4

The final installment of this four part series on Organic farming provides a summary of our series as well as a look at the true relative value of this endeavor.

Part Four: The relative value of Organic coffee and a few final thoughts.

Thinking critically about the role of organic certification in the specific context of Sustainable Coffee often leaves us with as many questions as answers. One thing is certain, however; it is a mistake to polarize the concept of ‘good’ agriculture in a way that leaves millions of responsible farmers out in the cold because they elect to make use of fertilizers or take an active approach to combating leaf rust and other potentially ruinous diseases. It is equally illogical and inaccurate to infer that organic coffee farmers are somehow more responsible stewards of their environments and communities or represent a more viable model for sustainable coffee production than their counterparts who do not pursue certification.

Embracing organic coffee as a solution becomes further complicated when we acknowledge that much of the world’s organic coffee supply is produced organically not because the farmers themselves are dedicated to organic principles, but rather because they simply cannot access or afford inputs. These kinds of farms are sometimes referred to as ‘organic by default’, and are typically in a state of decline because farmers are not making a significant contribution to the sustained health of either the coffee trees or the land. There is little soil rejuvenation, either because there is not enough available biomass to create compost or the farmers haven’t learned how to manage soil nutrition. Few of these farmers have had significant access to education beyond primary school, let alone specialized training in organic farming methodologies. Over time these farms tend to become progressively less productive because the nutrients used by the trees to produce fruit are not replaced in the soils. For this reason, and because these farmers are typically living in poverty and not earning enough to advance their livelihoods, it is difficult to call this kind of coffee farming sustainable.

If our goal collective goal as coffee professionals and consumers is forward progress towards a sustainable coffee future, it makes sense that we organize our priorities in a way that best addresses the current obstacles that confront the millions of farmers who depend on coffee for a living. Organic coffee cultivation, when practiced deliberately by resourceful farmers, deserves attention and support. By comparison though, other concerns such as farm biodiversity and native shade conservation, labor practices, wastewater disposal, community development, and of course the fundamental issue of farmers’ livelihoods are arguably more critical with respect to both short and long term sustainability goals. Ultimately all of these things matter--one without the others is an incomplete and inadequate solution. When making decisions about what kinds of farms to support we have a moral obligation to account for as many of these factors as possible and avoid the kind of myopic vision that can cause us to lose sight of the fact that most farmers face an uphill battle to attaining even baseline sustainability. It is highly debatable whether there is any significant difference in net environmental impact between a responsibly run coffee farm that manages inputs and actively looks to minimize its environmental footprint versus the average organic certified farm. Either way, there is a powerful argument to be made that any fractional advantages gained by non-application of chemical fertilizer don’t come anywhere close to matching the human livelihood and social costs that result from poverty.

What is Intelligentsia’s position on organic coffee?

Intelligentsia supports organic agriculture deeply and buys a lot of certified organic coffee. But we also believe that the use of synthetic fertilizer on coffee farms, when utilized the right way, is very worthy of support too. There are a lot of different ways to manage a coffee farm, and many hybrid approaches that lean heavily on organic principles while also making use of supplemental inputs when needed to counteract plagues or address nutrient deficiencies that can cause trees to fail.
The farms we choose to work with are conspicuously free of the need for heavy-handed pest control and the farmers themselves have made serious commitments to good environmental stewardship. They produce outstanding quality coffees and contribute in many ways to the health of the communities they belong to through their support of local health clinics, school funding, day-care for the children of workers, water projects and other praiseworthy efforts. Some of them do indeed choose to use small amounts of fertilizer to help meet the nutritional needs of their coffee trees, making them ineligible for organic certification. Those farmers make a choice to supplement their soil as needed with nitrogen and potassium and various micronutrients that would otherwise be very difficult and costly to obtain. On the balance they are meeting far more of the sustainability metrics than most certified organic farmers because they are comprehensive in their approach to farm management and are investing back in the communities where they live. We choose to support such farmers because they are contributing in a very tangible way to making the coffee world a better place, and believe that they deserve the same level of respect and attention that we pay to the organic producers that we work with.