Today I’d like to explore a little bit about organic coffee, and posit a reply to folks who say, “I only drink organic coffee.” I know you’re out there, and I know that you care an awful lot about being organic, sustainable, and socially responsible. And I personally respect, and agree with, those tenets. We should try to farm coffee without using artificial or synthetic chemicals. It should be our goal to support sustainable farming. And we should try our best to be socially responsible; to choose products from farms and roasters who support these ideals.
That said, I think we often conflate these ideas, and assume that if something is organic, it must be sustainable. I would argue that, in coffee, this just isn’t the case. Sustainable farming needs to be our primary focus and is more desirable than producing a purely organic product.
First, I would argue that most coffee farmers actually want to farm, and are typically organic farmers. They’re often far out in the forests, miles and miles away from the city. Know the easiest way to create fertilizer? Composting organic material found on the farm (sourced from plants or animals). And I’ve seen many farmers invest in ways to improve their fertilization process. Some have even gone to great lengths to use organic methods (e.g., farming parasitic wasps to combat beetles that attack the plant to cultivating parasitic fungi that consume disease-causing illnesses). One thing that most of these farms have in common is they had a solid existing infrastructure, and, through that, had cash that they could invest back into their farms. But that just isn’t the case for many small farmers. When someone’s struggling to earn enough to feed their family, it’s really not fair for to ask why they didn’t organically farm.
Similarly, the easiest way to maintain coffee farms is by hand. This is often well and good, but there are times when coffee farms “get sick.” The best example of this was an outbreak of coffee rust in Central America. Rust often spreads due to no fault of a coffee farmer. It can literally blow into a farm with the wind. The latest strain of rust recorded has mutated so that it’s immune to organic fungicides. I saw farmers who wanted to keep their farm organic (because they got a premium) lose their entire farm. It was heartbreaking to see the barren trees and the farmers giving up.
I saw others who chose to use the fungicide, knowing that, in the short term, they wouldn’t be able to sell their crop as “organic.” But in the long term, it was more sustainable (AND necessary) to support their family and livelihood. Believe me, small-holder coffee farmers aren’t chomping at the bit to spray their farm down with chemicals; they’re expensive, and often the supply doesn’t match demand. But sometimes, you need to make a hard decision and do it.
Many of these coffee tree diseases are analogous to common disease we see in humans. If you’re healthy, you can often resist illness. And, if you’re healthy and have access to the right foods/diet/money, you could potentially try to combat it organically. Sometimes, it’s just necessary to treat the problem. For example, you wouldn’t want to “tough out” meningitis.
An organic farm that I visited in Nicaragua back in 2015. As you can see, these coffee trees have no leaves and a heavy parasitic moss growing over them. In this case, with low market conditions, even being organic, it wasn't sustainable to grow coffee here.
That said, farming also has a problem with being too systemically dependent on chemicals and selective farming. A large part of the reason we see diseases swing through coffee regions like this is due to over-dependency on chemicals. And, if the market changes (e.g., your product is suddenly worth a lot less) the plants haven’t built up a natural resistance to disease without these chemicals. Because they're no longer affordable, well, it’s likely to fail.
Another problem with lack of resistance has nothing to do with chemicals, but more so with the demands of consumers. We often crave and demand high-quality coffee (e.g., specialty). For many years, farms have selected varieties of coffee that have yielded high cupping scores, in terms of quality. But, with high quality comes more demand, and most of these boutique varieties are surprisingly fragile plants. If there’s mono-culture on a farm, and a disease rips through it that affects that particular variety, that puts a farmer in a really difficult position.
Certification is another problem that I have with “organic” coffees. Yes, it’s cool, and farmers can get a premium for having their coffee certified as organic. But, did you know that every single country has a different “organic” standard. So, if a coffee farmer wants to be organic and sell coffee to the U.S., Canada, England, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, they’ll need to get certified with each one. And that costs money small farms just often don’t have. Larger farms with a lot of infrastructure and investment capital could potentially get a small premium for “organic” quality. But standards vary from country to country. So, if we collaborate with a producer who is certified organic in England, I can’t legitimately promote their coffee as USDA organic (the organization who oversees certification in the U.S.).
The same problem lies with Fair Trade coffees, but I won’t digress there in this blog.
Finally, I would argue that organic certification really has no bearing on the overall quality of the coffee, and that if you reward “organic” instead of rewarding “quality,” you’re focusing on the wrong ideal. It’s kind of a bummer when we’re tasting coffees: often “organic” certified coffees cup lower than their “non-organic” counterparts. Their premium is coming on the fact that it’s organic, not on because of quality. On the other side, suppose that we’re blind tasting 10 coffees, and that the person setting up our table placed two organic samples on the table, equal in quality to the others. If you asked me to choose which one was organic, I’d probably lose every time. The reason the quality coffees taste good is not because they’re organic, but because farmers had the resources and ability to fertilize, grow, groom, pick, process, dry, and sell their coffee in a sustainable way. And, a few of these just happened to be organic.
Drying beds at AGRIVID, a small cooperative of farmers in Tarrazu, Costa Rica. They are one of the first organic micromills in the region. But they were able to be organic because they previously focused on improving quality and infrastructure.
If it’s important to you (for health or lifestyle reasons), then I am fully in support of your mission to find the perfect organic cup. But, if you’re doing it to support sustainability, I recommend focusing on the transparency of the roaster and know that if they’re charging you a little more than the grocery store “organic” brand does, it’s likely they paid the producer more for that coffee. Many small roasters make it their mission to understand the farmer’s cost of production and pay a price reflective of that.
That’s our mission: we truly care about where our coffee comes from, and that our coffees will be here today, tomorrow, and years to come.