“So why should you buy it if it's even more expensive?”, you might ask.
Coffee bags labeled with an organic seal have an incredible intuitive appeal on the buying decision of coffee consumers as "organic" is associated with healthier and a more "natural" product contributing to our well-being.
During my research for this post I realized that there is a lot of information out there, but also some misconceptions, which brought sometimes me to doubt on what to believe.
As I think that organic coffee farming is a very important thing, I decided to dig deeper and offer you some facts as well as different point of views of how the actors in the organic coffee chain see the “organic” issue.
#1 The facts: What does "organic" coffee really mean?
First off, all products produced organically in the U.S. or imported from abroad have to be certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). I'm sure that most of you know the USDA organic label seal. In addition, there are several other seals and certification programs which go in the same direction.
The USDA sets a range of practices and techniques and lists allowed and prohibited substances which can be added during the production process of coffee.
These practices aim to minimize or eliminate the need to use agrochemical products. I repeat: “minimize or eliminate”. Here we have come to one misconception that consumers may relate to organic coffee.
Often it’s said that this coffee is produced without any kind of pesticides. But that’s not true. It’s more the question whether the pesticides are based on synthetic or natural substances.
But as coffee comes as a single-ingredient, usually the bags of organic coffee you buy contain 100% organically produced beans.
#2 The farmers perspective: Why do farmers adopt organic farming practices and what are the benefits for them?
First off, a distinction between those farmers who opt to obtain some kind of organic labeling (e.g., USDA Organic) implementing organic farming practices and those who are forced to produce organic coffee almost by default due to several reasons has to be made.
Those who go consciously for a label mainly have the following motivations: health, environment and money. Especially the health point of view is very important as agrochemicals used in coffee production can have a negative impact on the worker’s health.
A study revealed that in Jamaica, a random sample of 81 coffee farmers was surveyed. The majority of farmers reported to suffer from at least one health symptom associated with pesticide handling”.
Organic farming promotes practices and methods to preserve the environment and people at origin in order to avoid the exposure to toxic chemicals. So going organic is a long-term decision in favor of the environment and the workers’ health.
The other important aspect and a strong motivation is clearly the financial aspect. By pursuing an organic label, usually farmers aim for a higher price for their product. But I’ll come to that in a moment.
The other group of farmers produce organic coffee “by default”. They often cannot afford to buy pesticides or other substances necessary for their farm and so they are kind of forced to produce organically.
This is called “passive organic” and is not certified. In order to face the high costs of organic certifications, they usually are organized in cooperatives.
Clémenthine Allinne from the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica pointed out that the higher price the farmers get for their products can be considered as a blessing for them and has an important social impact on their family’s life.
From an ecological point of view, organic farming is always associated to smaller crops. The farmer usually will work with a lot of shade trees which help to preserve a vivid biodiversity. Furthermore, organic farming also helps to preserve the soil and water and under certain circumstances can be related to a higher quality in the production of the coffee cherry.
#3 The farmers perspective: What are the economics for the farmers behind organic coffee farming?
Although, the health and environmental aspects are paramount for the farmer’s decision to shift to organic production, they are also highly motivated by economics.
The shift to producing organic certified coffees or also specialty coffee usually implies higher costs as it’s more labor-intensive and the yield per acre is lower than conventional produced coffees.
But the objective is that through this differentiation the farmer can get a price premium which is above the New York C price. The price they get for their organic coffee can be up to 20-25% higher than that of a conventional produced coffee.
This higher price aims to compensate the higher cost brought by organic practices and lower yields.
But more and more studies reveal that the premium paid for organic coffee is not paying off for their affords, at least from an economic point of view.
That’s why more and more farmers are abandoning organic coffee farming as they experience that buyers do not accept the higher prices. In the end they are forced to sell their coffees to a conventional price resulting in a loss for their business.
#4 The consumer's perspective: What's in it for you?
First, let’s take a look on the product coffee. A study revealed that in certain foods organic practices can boost the nutrients and thus contribute to the health of a person. In the case of coffee, it is not very relevant, because we don't drink coffee for its nutritious properties, but rather as a luxury good.
One of the concerns that can arise among consumers is that conventional coffee can come with some kind of pesticide residue. Here and here it becomes clear that due to the different processing stages of coffee the probability to meet residue is really low and not that likely. At least, when coffee is roasted at a temperature above 200 C, the probability to take in some residue is really low.
From a quality point of view it’s important to realize that organic farming is mostly done on a small-scale. Thereby organic farming of coffee does not only mean the avoidance of agrochemicals but also the stewardship of an entire ecosystem. That means that organic coffee and also non-organic coffees in small farms keep its ecosystems with shade trees.
Shade trees are an important element and do not only contribute to "cool down" the coffee plants environment but also to provide important nutrients to the soil which the coffee takes into its metabolism. Together with other factors, this can contribute to a higher quality of the cherry growth and in the end of the coffee bean.
So we come back to the initial question: what's in it for you?
Mrs. Allinne says that supporting organic coffee farming is not so much about the consumer or the product itself and how we perceive it in our cup, but about the social and environmental aspect.
Supporting organic farming means helping people at origin to support small farmers to work in a healthy and non-toxic environment as well as supporting a long-term view regarding preserving an ecosystem which can give the farmer a healthy growth of coffee on the long-term and guarantee its business.
In this post I tried to shed a light on different perspectives of those who are part of the organic coffee chain and explain what’s in it for the people involved. I tried to give you a differentiated look on organic coffee and its impact on the mentioned areas of research.
The fact that there are farmers who are leaving the organic coffee path make me think that something doesn’t work well with this system. Despite all the advantages organic farming brings for the farmers, it also has to be profitable for them. Otherwise, they risk financial problems and they will struggle in sustaining their families.
If the consumer side is not ready to pay more for organic coffee, then this whole model ceases to be attractive for farmers and the return to conventional practices is more likely. On the other hand, there is a growing demand for organic coffee. But simple economics tell us that growing demand and lower offer will raise the price even more.
In the end, paying a little bit more can really make the difference. The farmer can sustain his business, potentially grow and invest in quality. We all would win. I hope I could contribute to raise more awareness to this issue.
I hope this post was helpful and I would appreciate if you want to share your thoughts and experience about this. I'm looking forward to your commentaries below. If you think this post could interest or help some of your friends, then please share it.
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Title picture by Young_n on Pixabay
Corrected & Revised by Andrea Letzner