By Julie Craves
Of all the certifications and labeling schemes that appear on consumable products, “organic” is probably the most familiar, and perhaps the most intuitively appealing. But even as demand grows, there is also a growing awareness that our perception of the purity of organic agriculture or understanding of organic certification may not completely align with reality, and that organic agriculture, even in compliance with certification standards, is not a panacea. But is it worth it?
As an ecologist, I believe that the most serious peril of non-organic coffee is harm to people and the environment at origin. And I believe that the coffee industry—supplier of a globally ubiquitous product grown by millions of people around the world—has a very special and central role in the promotion and evolution of the organic movement.
Let’s talk about some of the perceived shortcomings of organic food products which have particular relevance to coffee. The first is that organic produce is generally not more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. Coffee is not consumed for its nutritional benefits, so this is unlikely to influence coffee buying one way or another.
Pesticide residue on foods is a major concern to consumers, but some recent work has determined that organic foods may not be any safer than conventional foods. This is true for coffee, where little or no chemical residue is likely to remain once the beans are removed from the fruit (the part exposed to pesticides), dried and hulled, roasted at very high temperatures, ground, then brewed in water.
Finally, “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “high quality.” Organic coffee is often grown under a canopy of shade, and shade-grown coffee tends to ripen more slowly. Slower growth may intensify flavors, resulting in a better-tasting cup. This subtlety may not be discernible by the average consumer, and of course any coffee, carelessly harvested or processed, can result in a lousy cup.
If organic coffee is not healthier and doesn’t taste better than conventionally grown coffee, why should buyers favor it, especially given its higher price?
What is at stake?
Pesticides that are banned or highly restricted in the U.S. or Europe are still being used in many coffee-growing countries, including some that are highly toxic. Even illegal pesticides are still obtainable and being applied. Improper storage, inadequate personal protection, and lack of training for handlers of pesticides are not uncommon in the developing world, and result in farm workers being directly exposed to toxins.
Even if these toxins aren’t lethal, the effects on non-target organisms (including humans) may consist of reproductive impairment, weakened immune systems, abnormal hormonal function, cancers, genetic mutations, altered foraging and predator-avoidance behavior, faulty thermoregulation, and/or neurological effects. Use of herbicides also eliminates larval and pollinator host plants, transforming the base of food chains. These effects can occur even when chemicals are administered correctly, and are exacerbated when mis- or over-applied.
What I find most frightening is that there is no testing to determine what happens when multiple products are used concurrently or sequentially, or what happens when they combine with other chemicals (synthetic and natural) in the environment or in organisms. We don’t know how different climates or soils influence these interactions, or their long-term consequences. The number of potential combinations of substances, circumstances, and settings is mind-boggling, yet these synergies and their impacts on ecological and human health are essentially unknown!
According to the World of Organic Agriculture 2016 report, coffee is the world’s largest single organic crop. While comprising only two percent of all organic cropland, it covers over 20 percent of organic permanent cropland, and over half of the permanent cropland in Latin America, where the majority of organic coffee is grown. Moreover, coffee is grown in the tropics—home to some of the world’s most biodiverse areas and complex ecosystems.
Coffee farmers are largely motivated by economics. Organic agriculture often incurs substantial costs. Hand weeding, pruning of shade trees, and implementation of integrated pest management adds additional labor costs. Particularly daunting is the production or acquisition of large volumes of organic compost for fertilizer; synthetic fertilizers are not allowed due to high fossil fuel use in their manufacture and their limited use in promoting healthy soil. If a farm has a wet mill, the waste pulp can be used for fertilizer, but it will not be enough to meet the heavy feeding demands of coffee, so additional sources will need to be located. The hurdle of securing adequate organic fertilizer often contributes to yields for organic coffee growers that are lower than the inflated yields of high-input coffee—by over 30 percent in some cases.
Certification fees also play a role. Organic practices are verified by annual inspections, and producers pay, at some level, for certification, including accommodating inspectors and paying for their travel. These expenses, combined with lower yields and increased labor costs, are often not sufficiently offset by the price premiums paid for organic coffee, which are typically around 20 to 25 percent. This can make organic production unappealing to farmers. And since one of the requirements for organic certification is segregation from conventional coffee throughout the supply chain, there are financial burdens for importers, roasters, and other players in the supply chain as well. A portion of all these costs are of necessity passed on to consumers.
I don’t want to minimize the benefits of some agricultural chemicals, or oversimplify the complexities in growing coffee in environmentally or economically sustainable ways. But for decades we’ve been taking a risky gamble with our environment. Other coffee certifications have various restrictions on pesticide use, but only organic (and Smithsonian Bird-Friendly, for which organic certification is a prerequisite) prohibits most of them. There’s no denying that chemicals which are allowed under organic certification may be just as toxic as those that are not, but under organic rules their use is restricted to specific situations.
Many uncertified coffee farms may be considered “passive organic,” because they forego some or all chemical use due to expense or ideology. But unless they are certified, there is no way of knowing if, when, or how they use chemicals, or if they are following the many other essential environmentally-friendly practices that are mandated in organic certification standards. These encompass soil and water quality and conservation measures, and maintaining or enhancing biological resources, including supporting biodiversity.
Obtaining organic certification and fully embracing its philosophy is an enormous accomplishment, especially for farmers in developing countries where resources, technical support, and capital may be lacking. While many organic farms were or are helped by initial grants or other funding, some will require continued effort to preserve and advance organic practices. The coffee industry is in the position to aid in these activities by providing expertise, facilitating partnerships, and encouraging innovation. Larger industry players could help finance initiatives outright, and all front-line coffee providers have an opportunity to engage and educate the public on the importance of organic coffee, the challenges it presents to farmers, and the role of higher premiums in fostering and stabilizing organic production—indeed, helping it to prosper. Organic certification is a commitment to sustainability that deserves to be rewarded with our dollars.
A Short Primer on Organic Certification
All organic agricultural products sold in the U.S. are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program, and must adhere to their standards, whether produced in the U.S. or not. Organic certification excludes most manufactured pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, but does not mean chemical-free. Some natural as well as synthetic substances are allowed, typically because they are less toxic, break down in the environment faster, and/or do not contaminate soil or water, and can only be used in specific circumstances. Other requirements include no use of prohibited substances on the land for at least three years (during which the land is considered “in transition” but crops cannot be sold as organic), a buffer between any crop not grown organically, and a plan that demonstrates methods the prevent erosion and other sustainable methods. The use of the USDA Organic seal indicates a product is at least 95 percent organic unless 100 percent organic is specified. Coffee is a single-ingredient product, so a bag of organic coffee is 100 percent organic beans.
Julie Craves is an ecologist at the University of Michigan Dearborn, where her research focuses on migratory birds. She has traveled to several coffee-producing countries and visited a number of coffee farms where she and her husband have conducted ecological surveys. She writes about the connection between coffee and biodiversity at Coffee & Conservation (coffeehabitat.com).