September 16, 2021

A guide to buying organic coffee

Direct trade, ethical sourcing, fair pricing – these are all phrases people use when talking about how sustainable coffee is.

But what about organic coffee? 

The term is rarely seen on specialty coffee packaging, yet organic crop production is often associated with environmental conservation, farmer wellbeing, and higher prices.

Furthermore, the global organic coffee market is expected to reach US $6.55 billion this year. This shows that there’s certainly demand for it, meaning that green coffee traders and roasters can access this thriving market and diversify their product ranges. So, how do you go about sourcing organic coffee?

To break down the process, I spoke with three coffee industry professionals: a producer, a trader, and a roaster.

You may also like our article on minimising the carbon footprint of organic coffee production.

coffee farm

Despite the fact that the word “organic” has historically been associated with health and wellness in the food and beverage sector, organic farming has been prevalent since the beginning of agriculture.

Andre L da Silva is Senior Managing Director at Tropysync, a direct producer-to-roaster coffee trader based in Maryland, US. 

“Cultivating organic coffee is a way to strike a balance between land use and preservation of natural resources,” Andre says. “Organic coffee cultivation, when done right, doesn’t disturb the local ecosystem around your farm.”

Organic coffee farming techniques include growing coffee under shade, using natural fertilisers and pesticides, intercropping, and environmentally-friendly waste management. Techniques such as these support biodiversity, rather than prioritising higher crop yields over environmental health.

Ednilson Dutra is a co-owner of Fazendas Dutra, a family-owned and certified organic coffee farm in Minas Gerais, Brazil. The farm grows coffee, avocados, eucalyptus, and mahogany trees over more than 1,300ha of land.

“[Organic coffee] meets what people are looking for right now,” Ednilson says. “It has a strong ecological and sustainable appeal.”

Research indicates that consumers under the age of 55 are more likely to purchase organic produce – including coffee. This can mainly be attributed to the millennial and Generation Z demographics demonstrating more interest in “healthier” products. 

Andre adds: “When buying organic products, consumers aren’t just making a healthier choice for themselves. They also expect [the] premium they pay for those coffees to go back to the farmer and to nature.”

Dajo Aertssen is the founder of Cafés Muda in Lille, France. He sources coffee directly from Fazendas Dutra.

“People are starting to understand that we need to change the way most of our food is produced,” Dajo says.

woman drying coffee

Producing organic coffee

Ednilson tells me that Fazendas Dutra is certified organic according to USDA, Brazil, Canada, Japan, and EU regulations.

“We are surrounded by rocks, waterfalls, [and forest], so the [soil] here [is] good for coffee trees because [they] have a lot of organic materials.

“We have more than 2,000 avocado trees [on our] coffee plantation, [so] it [further] integrates with the natural [land].”

However, he adds that achieving these accreditations can be difficult – especially for smallholder farmers. 

While organic coffee production might appear to be a “back to basics” approach, the process of applying for and receiving organic certification can actually be lengthy and expensive.

“Producers that want to become organic-certified need to seek a local certifying agency in their area,” Andre explains. “The receiving country is expected to have specific rules for handling organic products, including coffee, such as the USDA Guide for Organic Processors.”

For example, USDA regulations stipulate that coffee producers must provide a detailed plan of how the farm plans to be organic. Certifying agents will then assess the strategic plan and carry out an in-person assessment of the farm.

These agents will judge based on a number of strict requirements. These include no use of genetically modified organisms (essentially, everything must be natural) and regular crop rotation to promote biodiversity.

In addition, farmers will only receive organic certification if the soil used for cultivation has received no prohibited substances three years prior to harvest.

If a coffee farm produces both organic and non-organic coffee, farmers must be careful in how they handle each type. Farmers must also use separate harvesting, milling, and processing equipment for both categories, or thoroughly clean between batches. Any cross-contamination will result in the farm losing its certification.

Despite these difficulties – especially for farmers who have little capacity for investment and rely on poor infrastructure – Andre says organic farming can be beneficial for producers.

“At origin, with the proper incentives, farmers can grow coffee in balance with their local ecosystem,” he explains. “[This] can help mitigate some of the [impacts of climate change], ensure their [families’ wellbeing], and contribute to the local economy.”

coffee farm sunset

Sustainable farming practices

The main aim of organic coffee farming is to improve the long-term conservation of local plants and wildlife. Most commodity-grade coffee is grown under full sun, while organic coffee is generally shade-grown. This is predominantly because sunlight burns some of the nutrients in soil that are essential for plant growth.

Shade also promotes biodiversity. On coffee farms, dark spaces provide small birds, animals, and insects with habitats that they would otherwise lose under full sun. 

Shade-grown farming also allows for more natural pesticides, as birds and animals repel bugs – but this requires careful management from producers. The shade trees also sequester carbon dioxide, giving producers the opportunity to balance or mitigate their carbon footprint.

Ultimately, however, coffee plants benefit from these environmentally friendly practices in a number of ways.

“At [Fazendas Dutra], we produce coffee in harmony with nature,” Ednilson says. “We benefit from the farm’s excellent location and favourable conditions, such as good rainfall and good soil fertility.

“We also only use natural fertilisers. This includes coffee husk, which goes back to the crops and replenishes natural vegetation.”

Correctly applying fertiliser of any kind typically increases coffee quality over time, so farmers may even be able to charge higher prices for their coffees in the long term. 

Ednilson adds: “Solar panels are also part of our philosophy of organic and sustainable coffee production. They help in the supply chain by generating clean energy. 

“We’re also hoping we can positively influence other producers in the region. This reinforces the mentality that we can all collaborate [in] some way to improve and protect our planet.”

roasting coffee

How to source organic coffee

While many green buyers and roasters are investing in high-quality coffee, Dajo points out that specialty-grade coffee is not by definition organic.

“Specialty coffee is not only about great cup quality, but also about sustainable farm practices and producing clean, healthy products.

“That said, many people believe that all specialty coffee is by default organically-produced. Although this may be the case for many producers, pesticides and chemicals [can] still [be] used by specialty coffee producers.”

Despite this, the area used for organic coffee cultivation is growing year-on-year. This means that more certified organic coffee than ever is now available to buyers and roasters.

In 2016, an International Trade Centre report stated that 46% of coffee-producing land in Latin America was certified organic, while 39% of coffee-growing regions in Africa were classified as organic-accredited.

However, the process of accreditation presents barriers for many smaller-scale farmers. For example, Specialty Coffee Ethiopia claims around 95% of its farmers are producing organic coffee, but cannot use organic labelling.

“The price is higher than [commodity-grade], but the cost [of production] is high because we cannot use big machines to harvest the coffee or [other] jobs on the farm,” Ednilson explains.

Paying higher prices for organic coffee also ensures that producers and farm workers receive a more sustainable income. It also offsets the higher cost of production. 

“As retailers understand that organic coffee consumption helps profitability and contributes to a more sustainable planet, they are opening more spaces in their shelves to organic and natural products,” Andre says.

He also says that sourcing organic coffee is a commitment to the long-term future of the coffee industry. This is becoming increasingly vital, as some studies indicate that by 2050, around 50% of arabica-growing land will be unproductive.

“By purchasing organic coffee, roasters are contributing to a more sustainable world,” he says. “They are therefore sending a message to the entire coffee industry that organic coffee production is a way to guarantee a continuous supply of the raw material.”

harvesting coffee

Supplying a growing demand

People will likely continue to be more interested in organic coffee if sustainability remains a focus for the coffee sector.

“We believe that more and more people want to pay more money for organic coffee,” Ednilson says.

Dajo adds: “The biggest challenge is helping small farmers to make the transition towards organic production and making certification more accessible.

“After talking with small farmers in Brazil, I see the process is still complicated and expensive, making it more difficult for smallholders.”

Supporting smaller farms to transition to organic production – with or without certification – could be positive for the social, economic, and environmental sustainability of the coffee industry.

Andre adds: “The greater remuneration for organic coffee cultivation should serve as an incentive to recover environmentally degraded areas.

“This could even help alleviate some of the irregular weather patterns that are occurring more frequently, especially those severely affecting coffee producers, such as erratic rainfall, heat waves, and severe droughts.”

These extreme weather patterns are causing farmers to “climb higher” to reach more optimal growing conditions. In turn, this means a widespread turn to practices like organic farming could help to safeguard the livelihoods of farmers.

However, it seems likely that growing consumer demand will nonetheless maintain the momentum for more sustainable, organic coffee, especially if it’s certified.

“Organic certification can also make it easier to convince a customer to spend twice the price [they] would spend on a bag of supermarket coffee,” Dajo concludes. “It adds real value.”

ploughing field

Diversifying products is becoming ever more important in the competitive coffee market, and sourcing organic coffee is a good way to make your business stand out.

Not only can buying organic coffee demonstrate a commitment to the environment, it also has benefits for the social and economic longevity of the entire coffee supply chain.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article understanding carbon-neutral coffee production.

Photo credits: Fazendas Dutra

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Fazendas Dutra is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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