How does organic vs. conventional production enter into this? Ideally, organic farming views the farm as an ecosystem unto itself—one that must be kept healthy and in a state of balance. After tobacco and cotton, conventionally-produced coffee is the third most heavily chemically treated crop in the world. Not only are some of the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers used banned in most western nations; they’re often used without any genuine regulatory supervision.
Looks good, smells good...but does it have
While some people fear pesticide residues in their coffee, there have been reports that, since it’s the coffee cherry that has these chemicals applied to it, the complete removal of the fruit/pulp during processing would mean no chemical residue was present in or on the beans. Such reports add that roasting the beans to the usual high internal temperatures (above 400°F) would drive off any chemical residue that might, by chance, remain. Others disagree; there has been speculation that agrochemicals may be taken up through the roots into coffee plants, in which case coffee beans could be carrying their residues.
But nobody seems to be laboring under any delusions about the effect all of this chemical use has on the coffee farmers, their families, and the environment. Runoff from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers contaminates both land and water for the people who grow coffee plants, causing immediate as well as long-term health problems. The chemicals themselves wipe out many species of plant and animal (especially insect) life indigenous to any area where they’re applied, and there’s no lack of evidence to suggest that both direct and indirect contact with many of these agrochemicals makes people very sick, especially children. Last but not least, synthetic chemicals for coffees are not cheap; organic coffee lessens expenditures for these chemicals that are no longer used and reduces dependence upon off-farm materials. As part of organic regulations, organic coffee must be grown on land that has not seen the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or other prohibited substances for three years, there must be a sufficient buffer zone between the organic coffee and any conventional crop, and the farmer must have a suitable crop rotation plan to help prevent soil erosion, pests and the depletion of soil nutrients.
Socially Responsible Coffee. Is this particular type of “socially responsible” coffee a big deal to anyone? Very much so. There are importers and roasters who offer multiple varieties of organic coffees and take immense pride in the fact that organic coffee, once considered of inferior quality, has come a long way in that department in a short time. One such roaster is Chris Neumann, co-founder of Sweetwater Organic Coffee Company. Mr. Neumann, and his wife and business partner Nora Edison, offer only organic coffees that they roast themselves. This is a fledgling operation, but both partners are passionate about running an ethical business, and to them that means the use of organic beans—but only the best organic beans they can find. As Mr. Neumann says, “I choose to carry the best coffee that’s sustainable and responsible within an organic-certified framework.” He buys from what he sees as only the most responsible importers, companies like Elan Coffee Company, who were pioneers in getting organic Peruvian coffee to the U.S., among other things. Mr. Neumann understands that not everyone is interested in the ethics of coffee, but after speaking to him, I’m not sure he knows why that is the case. He seems extraordinarily committed to the idea of sustainability, and it’s evident that that goes hand-in-hand with organics as far as he is concerned.
Fertilizers. Peter Giuliano, the Director of Coffee at Counter Culture Coffee, is another devotee of organic farming (and sustainability; more about the latter further on). He points out that most synthetic fertilizers not only take fossil fuels to produce, but are “NPK” blends (combinations of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). While all of those elements are necessary for plant growth, Mr. Guiliano likens fertilizing solely with these blends as the equivalent of living on meat, pasta, and milk. You might be able to survive, but you won’t be very healthy. Synthetic fertilizers completely ignore the micronutrients coffee plants require to produce better-quality beans.
Composting. Mr. Giuliano is a great proponent of composting, also a requirement for any certified organic coffee farm (specifically, the coffee pulp, which is the coffee cherry minus the beans, must be composted). He insists that great coffee begins with great soil health, and he clearly thinks composting is the best way to achieve that. He also maintains that coffee plants are often forced to overproduce through excessive application of nitrogen, something that will reduce coffee quality. And he says that the agrochemicals used in conventional coffee production only work for a limited number of years, in part because the animals designed to be killed off by pesticides, etc., will become resistant and in part because this system is so unhealthy for farmers and workers (I’ve read, too, that agrochemicals can shorten the productive life of coffee plants).
Higher Prices. Will you pay more for organic coffee? Yes, almost certainly, although in theory the farmer growing it will receive a premium for his beans, too. Is there “cheating” in the organic coffee industry, so that people are paying organic coffee prices and receiving conventionally-produced beans? There have been accusations of this (indeed, some people still maintain that it simply isn’t viable to produce coffee organically), but these charges are difficult to prove. Does organic coffee taste better than conventionally-produced coffee? That is for you to decide.