Organic coffee: Why it is better for the planet
You may wonder ‘what’s the hype’ about organic coffee? For centuries food has been grown organically. That is, until the use of synthetic fertilisers.
Nitrogen is one of the five basic requirements for plants, along with potassium, phosphorus, water and sunlight. Nature's way is that plants grow, produce and then die, whereby the nitrogen they contain returns to the soil, and new plants grow again. When we harvest plants and eat them, we disrupt this cycle. For centuries farmers found ways to return nitrogen to the soil via food scraps, manure and other organic matter. However, as the world population grew, so did the demand for more, cheaper food.
In the early 1900s two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, devised a way to transform nitrogen in the air into fertiliser, using what became known as the Haber-Bosch process. This process enabled the world to produce synthetic plant fertilisers on an industrial scale. Farmers, including coffee farmers, could now grow food in huge quantities, which in turn made it possible to support a larger population under what has become known as ‘conventional’ farming.
What is organic farming?
Back to organic farming. Over recent decades the demand for organically grown produce has increased with many of us wanting to live healthier and more sustainably. Organic certification programs have been established, setting standards, and reassuring consumers that a product has been organic farmed through ‘approved’ methods. However different certifications have different standards leading to much confusion for consumers. In general, a produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years before harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
How to become certified organic?
Different countries have different organic certifications leading to a host of acronyms such as ACOS (Australia), EU Standard, NOP (USDA Standard). Some organic certifications are internationally accepted, while others are not and require additional certification from separate auditors to qualify as certified organic in the country of import. This adds to the cost of the end product.
In practical terms, the certification organisations set the policies and standards and appoint accredited auditors or ‘certifying agents’ around the world, who are responsible for ensuring that the products comply with the policies and standards.
For farmers to become certified organic, they must follow the use of approved substances during the growing process and keep strict records thereof. No prohibited substances like chemical and synthetic fertilisers are permitted to have been used on that land for the past three years.
Every farmer that applies for organic certification receives a site inspection by a certifying agent, who inspects fields, soil conditions, crop health, approaches to the management of weeds and other crop pests, water systems, storage areas and equipment.
Is certified organic coffee financially viable for coffee farmers?
The costs for organic certifications vary greatly based on farm size, farm product and certifying body and by country. In some cases, certification can amount to hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars. In the world of coffee, smallholder farmers are often organised in cooperatives where the cooperative applies for certification and the costs are shared between each farmer within the cooperative. Said that each farmer is required to meet the strict organic practices and to keep records for audit purposes. And re-certification costs coupled with site audits occur each year – regardless of a good or bad harvest.
Another ‘cost’ inherent with organic farming are the lower yields. Let’s talk more specifically about organic coffee. For many smallholder farmers, coffee is their only source of income. So naturally, if you were a coffee farmer, you want to produce more coffee and therefore increase your income. Under organic coffee farming, the yields are between 22-44% 1) lower than that of conventional coffee farming.
Coffee tree growth and yield depend to a large degree on the supply of nutrients which are often in short supply. To supply sufficient nitrogen to the coffee trees, under organic coffee farming 10 – 20 times more organic fertiliser is required than the use of synthetic fertilisers.
We are a big fan and partner of the Café Femenino program. All coffees under the program are certified organic. Isabel Uriarte LaTorre from the Peruvian Café Femenino program tells us: “Farmers use cui (Guinee pig) and chicken manure, leaves, coffee pulp, egg shelves, banana peels, banana stems, green manure, ash and other organic matter to produce their own organic fertiliser. However, they struggle to produce this fertiliser in sufficiently large amounts.”
Now, what about the price farmers achieve for certified organic coffee? Astoundingly there is no set premium for organic certified coffee. Well, there is a ‘path’ that rewards certified organic coffee, that is to be Fairtrade certified. When coffee is sold under Fairtrade certification it not only attracts a minimum floor price plus a Fairtrade premium, but it also receives a premium for the organic coffee certification of US$0.30 per pound of green coffee. Whilst many organic coffee farmers receive a premium under these combined certifications, the Fairtrade certification is not available to all farmers in all countries and the Fairtrade certification costs money too.
Let’s sum this up: high annual fixed costs of certification, lower crop yield, labour intense way of farming, higher susceptibility to pests and coffee diseases plus an uncertain price premium for organic certified coffee. Hey, what a value proposition. Sign me up now!
There is no doubt that organic coffee farming is not financially attractive for many coffee farmers. Maybe the decline of organic coffee farmland by 17.4% 2) between 2017 and 2018 attests to this.
However organic coffee farming is a way of life for many of our coffee farmers, some of which are organised in cooperatives and have access to an 'organic certified' supply chain, such as our coffee farmers from the Café Femenino Program in Peru. Other coffee farmers, such as our smallholder coffee farmers in Peru or Ethiopia growing coffees in their gardens without the use of synthetic fertilisers or chemicals, by default their coffee is organically grown, just not organic certified.
Is organic coffee better for your health?
Whilst the inputs into coffee farming are vastly different, organic vs inorganic, what ends up in our cup may not be so different. How so?
The coffee beans grow inside the fruit flesh of the coffee cherry. Chemicals, therefore, don’t come in direct contact with the coffee bean when for example compared to apples. Nor do we eat raw coffee beans like an apple. Instead, the raw coffee beans are separated from the fruit flesh, fermented, washed, dried and then roasted at high temperatures above 200 degrees Celsius. Most experts agree that the chemicals used in non-organic grown coffee have been largely decimated throughout the roasting process and that few if any, traces of these chemicals are left behind.
So why then if not for health benefits should you opt for organic coffee? Whilst the health benefits of organic coffee for you personally may be marginal, the positive impact on the environment is huge when opting for organically grown coffee.
Is organic coffee farming better for the environment?
ABSOLUTELY! Organically grown coffee as part of your daily routine has a direct positive impact on the environment.
Organic farming is part of Regenerative Agriculture that helps keep soil healthy. The world has realised that healthy soil is one of the keys to helping store carbon. Let me try to explain this.
A tree absorbs carbon dioxide and turns it into a carbon fuel. That fuel nourishes microorganisms living along the tree roots. These microorganisms produce a carbon glue and help store carbon in the soil. They also convert organic matter into nutrients that the soil makes available to plants to absorb and grow.
Conventional farming has seen the rise in monoculture (single-crop farming) together with large land clearings and the ever-increasing use of synthetic fertilisers. Spraying soil with pesticides and herbicides has killed many of the microorganisms in the soil. As a result, the carbon, stored in the soil, has been released back into the atmosphere.
Organic farming practices using organic fertiliser and agroforestry, whereby coffee trees are shade-grown in co-existence with native trees and fruit trees, help to create healthy soil which in turn helps to store carbon and promotes a healthy ecosystem where local flora and fauna thrive.
And let’s not forget the farmers and their communities. Organic farming means handling no chemicals and keeping local water resources clean and safe.
How do we support sustainable farming?
As a part of the B-Corp family, we are striving to do better each day and evaluating the impact our decisions have on our customers, community, supply chain, partners, coffee growers and the environment.
To decrease the carbon footprint of our coffee supply chain, we are actively sourcing sustainably grown coffees and have extended our range of coffees sourced from certified organic farms and cooperatives. We label these coffees ‘Organic’.
We also source coffees from farmers who apply sustainable environmentally friendly farming practices but don’t carry organic certification. For example, our coffee from the PNG highland is grown by smallholder farmers, most certainly alongside shading fruit trees and without the use of synthetic fertilisers and chemicals. Or the coffee from our friend Pedro at Fazenda Pinhal, who preserves 40% of their farmland to natural habit to help support biosequestration, and healthy flora and fauna. Surely that’s great too.
The more we ask ourselves: What are we consuming and where did it come from? What farming system is it we are supporting through this purchase? Are we re-generating or de-generating? - the bigger the collective impact.
- 1) Kiliani, B, C. Jones, L. Pratt and A. Villobos, 2006 ‘Is sustainable agriculture a viable strategy to improve farm income in Central America? A case study on coffee.
- 2) International Trade Center: The State of Sustainable Markets 2020, Statistics and Emerging Trends