More and more coffee lovers are promoting organic coffee as a consumer-conscious alternative to 'conventional' coffee that is better for the environment and for the farmers that grow the coffee. As the market for organic coffee grows, it is becoming ever more important to understand what organic coffee is and how to know when you're really buying 'green beans'.
What is Organic Coffee and How is it Grown?
Organic coffee is grown without using pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals. Organic techniques focus on maintaining good soil quality and plant health as the most effective means of boosting productivity and protection against disease. Typically, organic farmers fertilise with compost, and use disease-resistant mulch. Crops are rotated and plantations are interspersed with fruit and nut trees to ensure that the soil is replenished regularly with nutrients. As a result, the land can remain fertile for coffee production for generations, which prevents farmers from having to cut down trees to clear new land. Organic coffee is often grown on small, family-owned farms that also benefit economically from having these secondary crops. In addition, although organic farming is more labour-intensive, certified organic coffee growers are paid an average of 15 cents more per pound for their product than they would be for conventional beans.
Organic coffee is typically 'shade grown' under a canopy of trees that filters the sun. This is sometimes referred to as 'bird-friendly coffee' because the trees preserve habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. In this regard, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center is said to have documented sightings of up to 150 species of birds on a shaded coffee farm, compared to just five to 20 on a conventional coffee farm. The trees also help to conserve water and topsoil by providing a mulch cover, and the birds act as a natural defence against bugs and other pests. Shade-grown coffees also tends to mature more slowly, which many people believe produces a superior tasting bean. Interestingly, shade-tree growing was the traditional way of growing coffee before the industry became as commercialised as it is today.
In contrast, conventional 'full sun' coffee, which was developed in the 1970s and 1980s to increase productivity, is grown without tree cover to allow the coffee plants to be grown closer together. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides, such as DDT, malathion and benzene hexachloride, must be used to compensate for the lack of nutrients and biological diversity.
Who Decides what is Organic?
Several independent third-party certification agencies, such as the Organic Crop Improvement Association, have been established to verify the claims of organic coffee producers. If an agency determines that a grower's operations adhere to its standards, they are allowed to market coffee under the certifier's label. Certification can, however, be expensive, and some organic farmers choose not to spend the extra money to have their farming practices validated by an outside party.
Organic coffee is also closely linked with 'fair trade coffee', which involves paying coffee producers a fair price for their product. As with organic coffees, various third-party agencies have been established to certify fair trade producers.
Despite the growing recognition of the benefits of organic coffee, not everyone is anxious to buy these green beans. In most places, organic coffee commands a higher price than conventional coffee and some people are not willing to pay the extra money. It pays to shop around, however. Many coffee wholesalers sell their beans directly to consumers at a lower rate than many retail chains, but you need to seek them out.
In addition, some people suggest that organic coffee is less flavoursome than conventional coffee. Before you judge, however, remember that it can take a few tries to find your perfect bean. As with conventional beans, you may need to sample a few different kinds before you find one that works for you. Simply buy a small quantity of beans each visit or, better yet, see if you can sample a cup of fresh brew before you buy the beans. Take the opportunity to sample beans from the various coffee regions of the world until you find one that strikes your fancy.
Finally, amid the increasing consumer interest in organic and fair trade coffee, there are also opportunists who are trying to capitalise on the demand. Even though there are several reputable certifying agencies, there is no single standard that has gained general consumer acceptance, and thus it can be difficult to sort out competing claims. For example, coffee labels that simply state 'shade grown' can be misleading, because some shade-grown coffee still uses chemicals, and sometimes the trees are pruned so severely that they do not provide a suitable habitat for birds. If you are interested in purchasing organic or fair trade coffee it is best to do some research first, such as learning the names of certifying agencies or individual coffee growers so you can be certain that you're getting the green beans that you're looking for.
Digum, Gregory and Nina Luttinger, The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry From Crop to the Last Drop, The New Press: New York, 1999.