August 14, 2019

The Pros & Cons of Growing Organic Coffee


The topic of organic coffee can be polarizing. For those in favor of it, the environmental benefits of organic production are obvious. Those on the other side might mention the inefficient and expensive certification process, and the fact that any chemical residues will be burnt off in the roasting process.

Organic coffee production can be more labor-intensive and expensive to produce than non-organic methods. So why would you choose to grow it? Let’s take a closer look at what’s involved in organic coffee production.

Lee este artículo en español Cultivar Café Orgánico: Ventajas y Desventajas

The US and European seals for organic products.

How Does Organic Certification Work?

There is no single, international set of standards for organic coffee. In the US, standards are dictated by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the USDA. The European Union states that “all food producers, processors or traders who wish to market their food as organic need to be registered with a control agency or body. The control agency or body is responsible for verifying that the operator acts in compliance with organic rules. Each EU country can decide whether this is a public or a private body but they all check that the European Union’s rules on organic production are followed.” Many other countries have similar standards.

Certification of organic farms is handled by accredited agencies. These agencies often work in several producing countries and get accredited for several standards to serve multiple markets.

For example, an agency based in the US will go through the USDA NOP to be accredited to certify products as organic in US markets. If they work with a farm that also wants to sell their coffee in Japan as certified organic, the agency would need to be accredited by JAS (Japan Agricultural Standards).

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Coffee cherries on the plant. Credit: Juan Vargas

The Organic Certification Process

It can be time-consuming and costly for a farm to be certified as organic. The farm needs to go through “conversion,” a three-year period without using synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, before it can be certified. During and after that time, you must demonstrate your ability to fulfill the specific requirements of the market’s organic standards. To do this, you must develop and implement an approved plan for organic management of the land.

This plan should cover weed and pest management, detail what fertilizers are used, and, when possible, include a cover crop system to protect and replenish soil health. If you have both organic and non-organic coffee on their farm, a buffer zone must be established to prevent any contamination by synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. 

All inputs and management choices need to be documented so that auditors from certifying agencies can verify that the planned practices are being implemented.

Organic fertilizer at Fincas Montenegro in Guatemala. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Harvest and postharvest procedures must also follow organic principles. This means that pickers can’t use the same bags to haul both non-organic and organic coffee cherries. Equipment must be thoroughly cleaned between lots. If the same machine is used to depulp both organic and non-organic coffee, a small amount that can’t be sold as organic must be run through the machine to purge it.

When the coffee leaves the farm, it needs to go to a certified organic facility, and if that facility also handles non-organic coffee, it must have appropriate procedures in place to prevent the mixing of lots. This separate supply chain extends all the way to the roaster, who must also be certified organic in order to use the organic label on their packaging.

Organic coffee cherries at Fazendas Klem. Credit: Nicholas Yamada

How Organic Coffee Production Works

Organic coffee is contrasted to “conventional” coffee, but up until the 1960s and ‘70s, when producers started to plant new, higher-yielding varieties in full sun, in tighter rows, and with the heavy addition of chemical inputs, organic cultivation was the convention. Organic production is neither low-tech nor old-fashioned. Rather, it is a living tradition of farming practices dating back thousands of years.

The goal for technified coffee is basically to increase productivity for a given plot of land. The goal and challenge of organic production is to naturally build a healthy climate for coffee trees while maintaining productivity in the face of disease, pests, and climate change.

Honey and natural processing at Fazendas Klem. Credit: Nicholas Yamada

Juan Vargas is the coffee director at Fazendas Klem in Luisburgo, Minas Gerais, Brazil. The coffees produced here are fully organic. “It is important to create soil and an ecosystem that works for itself,” he says.

“The more a plant is nourished with food available in the soil, the better its resistance to any pest or sickness… The plant eats, it doesn’t drink. The heart of the plant is the roots through which the available food, microorganisms, and ecosystem work to nourish the plant.”

There are many ways that you can feed and protect your coffee without the use of chemicals. The most obvious one is the use of compost made of nitrogen and potassium-rich coffee pulp.

Ripe coffee cherries at Fazendas Klem. Credit: Nicholas Yamada

Organic production is typically associated with lower yield, but it isn’t always the case. Juan says that “we achieve the same yields as conventional production because of our management process.”

However, labor costs do tend to be higher than in non-organic production. Mixing compost and then hauling it to the fields and weeding by hand will always be more work than spraying synthetic herbicides or fertilizers.

But there are some small-scale farmers who are organic by default. They may not be certified because of the expense and the paperwork involved in the process, but because chemical fertilizers and pesticides are also too expensive, they are “passive organic.” This includes the majority of Ethiopian smallholders.

Coffee dries on raised beds at Fazendas Klem. Credit: Juan Vargas

Challenges of Organic Production & Certification

Cost is by far the largest obstacle for farmers considering organic certification. You will be responsible for the cost of inspection, which includes the travel and lodging expenses of certifying auditors, as well as annual certification fees. This effectively puts organic certification out of reach for most small-scale farmers unless they are part of a cooperative, in which case certifying costs can be split between all members.

It’s easy to see why organic coffee costs more versus coffee of the same quality that isn’t certified as organic. The cost of certification, the additional labor needed, and all the extra work that goes into maintaining traceability add up.

Juan tells me that the price differential for organic coffee is fair “because producing organic coffee is more expensive than conventional methods… everything is looking to guarantee the traceability and quality of the product in order to avoid any kind of contamination.”

A view from Mapache Coffee, El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Besides the burden of certification and the additional labor of organic farming, there are other challenges in organic production.

A biodiverse, organic farm could be healthier and more resilient in the long term than a technified, full sun coffee farm, but it’s difficult to quantify that resiliency. When comparing an organic to a non-organic farm, the non-organic one may look more successful because this assessment is based only on factors that are easy to measure, such as yield and cost of production.

Certification requirements also lack flexibility and aren’t necessarily tailored to coffee farming. For example, a farmer with an ecologically vibrant farm under full shade who sprays a modest amount of fertilizer a few times a year would be disqualified from organic certification. But another farmer who grows coffee in full sun and who contaminates local water sources with processing wastewater may be eligible. 

Consumers are unlikely to be informed on these nuances and may simply see an organic certification as more environmentally friendly.

Coffee cherries on a tree. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Pests and diseases can also be a challenge. With organic production, the focus has to be on prevention. Maintaining proper shade, drainage, and soil health minimizes the conditions in which pests and plant diseases can thrive. 

If there is an outbreak, the first step is often physical removal of infected plants and manual traps for pests. Both of these methods are more labor intensive than non-organic methods, but they’re manageable. 

However, if a sudden, drastic disease outbreak occurs, such as a serious outbreak of coffee leaf rust, a farmer may have to choose between losing their entire crop or spraying a chemical and losing their certification. With the time-consuming process and expense included in organic certification, as well as the potential loss of buyers who have committed to an order of organic beans, this isn’t an easy choice.

Learn more in How to Monitor For & Prevent Coffee Leaf Rust

Sacks of coffee in a warehouse. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Why Grow Organic Coffee?

With all of these downsides to growing organic coffee, why would you choose to? The two main reasons are commercial appeal and environmental reasons. 

Organic coffee can be sold at a premium to non-organic coffee. These premiums are intended to offset the costs of certification, but they are also a modest strategy to earn more for your coffee in the face of low C prices. Coffees sold under Fairtrade terms that are also certified organic automatically receive a 30 cent premium per pound.

The market outlook for organic coffee is difficult to gauge – certified organic sales are not centrally aggregated and are therefore difficult to track. A report on US organic trade data from 2011 to 2016 states that imports and prices paid for organic coffee in the US are mostly steady but have trickled off in recent years. But a 2018 report on sustainable markets observes that land area dedicated to organic production is increasing worldwide. 

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide for yourself whether it’s worth it to pursue organic certification for purely financial reasons. Read up on what is needed, the actual costs, and consider whether you can work with a cooperative to make it more affordable.

Ripe coffee cherries at a farm in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

For many people, the decision to be certified as organic is more than a cold economic calculation. Juan says that Fazendas Klem is motivated to get out of the “conventional and volatile NY exchange,” but chooses organic methods first and foremost, “because of life philosophy, to be in a privileged microclimate that permits sustainable production.”

In the era of climate change, farmers and consumers are increasingly aware of the wider impact of using non-organic methods. Organic farming’s emphasis on soil health has a range of beneficial effects for the ecosystem, including carbon storage.

And, as highlighted in a  2016 SCA article, while consumers have small reason to fear pesticides making their way into a cup of coffee, farm workers could have cause for concern. It states, “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.” 

For roasters, ethics and economics are also the main factors to consider. If organic certification would allow you to get your bags on shelves in a local organic food store, it may be worth going through the extra effort of getting certified and sourcing certified organic coffee.

A view from Fazendas Klem. Credit: Juan Vargas

Cultivating organic coffee can be a challenging, risky proposition, and the costs of certification can place a significant burden on producers. But if you are already inclined toward sustainable agriculture, the environmental and health benefits of an organic method might be appealing. It may also put you in a better market position, because you will have a premium product.

It’s no small feat to set up a parallel supply chain for organic coffee. But considering all of the work at every step of the supply chain, it’s amazing that organic coffee only costs a few dollars more per pound by the time it reaches the end consumer.

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Feature photo: A view from Fazendas Klem, Brazil. Feature photo credit: Juan Vargas.

Please note: Before implementing the advice in this article, we advise also consulting with a local technical expert, since differences in climate, soil type, varieties, processing methods, and more can affect the best practices for production and processing.

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