The truth about Certified Organic coffee and why so few small and medium-sized roasters offer it

Certified Organic means no pesticides were used. FALSE.

Certified Organic means higher quality coffee. FALSE.

Certified Organic means better for the ecosystem. FALSE.

Not Certified Organic means not organically-grown. FALSE.

Most comparisons between Certified Organic and non-certified fail to distinguish between shade-grown, high-grown arabica (which is what most specialty roaster’s use) and conventional robust coffee. TRUE.

When speaking about coffee, the term “organic” is complex. There is Certified Organic coffee, identified by the Organic label, and organically-grown coffee, also known as natural or passive-organic. One is not necessarily cleaner, better for you, or better for the environment than the other. There are many factors that go into creating a delicious, good-for-you, eco-friendly, natural coffee — unfortunately, being Certified Organic is not necessarily one of them. To understand the difference between coffee labeled Organic and all other coffees, it is important we step back to the beginning.

What makes a coffee great?

Good soil. High-altitude. Shade trees. Great coffee starts with great beans grown in high-quality, nutrient-packed soil at high elevations under a natural shade canopy. When comparing Certified Organic to non-organic coffees, many non-coffee aficionados compare Certified Organic with conventionally grown robusta coffee. While this is technically a valid comparison, it is a bit like comparing the intellectual development of elementary school students to university students. There are two primary types of coffee, arabica which is shade-grown, non-disruptive, and resource-light, and robusta which is sun-grown, environmentally disruptive, and resource-heavy. Robusta beans are often hybrids planted in large sun-baked fields that require many pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to mature. When comparing commercial robusta to Certified Organic robusta coffee, Certified Organic is unquestionably better for you and for the environment. But this is not the comparison we are talking about. When comparing, as most specialty roasters would, Certified Organic to naturally-grown coffee, the comparison is complex and many factors must be evaluated, starting with the meaning of Organic. Please note, for the remainder of this entry, we are only comparing Certified Organic arabicas to naturally-grown / passively-grown / organically-grown arabicas.

What is Certified Organic and how does it differ from natural coffee?

Organic generally implies that a food is clean (e.g., free from non-natural substances), better for the earth, and more nutritious. While this is true for most Certified Organic produce, it is not necessarily true for coffee. If you are starting with a high-quality arabica bean, there is no nutritional difference between an organic and an organically-grown bean, nor is there a difference in cleanliness. Arabicas grown at high elevations, in their native environment, benefit from natural pest control in the form of bats and birds and rarely require pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. They also play a vital role in the local agroforestry system. Certified Organic coffee may grow at high or low altitudes, under either a natural or artificial canopy, and with the aid of natural / organic pesticides.

To become Certified Organic farms must demonstrate compliance with Certified Organic requirements (click here to view the requirements) and pay for certification, including the room, board, and travel of third-party certifying agents. This gets incredibly pricy — too pricy for small farms and subsistence farmers. Sure, the farmer may be able to make a few more cents per pound on his beans but the certification — even if there is no procedural change required to comply with the certification requirements — is often too high and too risky for small farmers. This means that the overwhelming majority of Certified Organic farms are larger commercial farms that may or may not be growing the highest quality coffee, or may not be growing it in a way that is best for the native ecosystems. As a final kicker, Certified Organic roasters may use the USDA Certified Organic label as long as 95% of the coffee in the bag is organic. To learn more about this, check out our blog, Coffee and sustainability, creating a sustainable¬†cup.

So, the coffee is Certified Organic and the roaster can show that on the label, right? Wrong.

Once a farm successfully receives their Organic certification, they may say their coffee is Certified Organic but that does not mean the roaster or final reseller can call the beans Certified Organic. For a roaster to use the Certified Organic label, they must also complete Organic certification. The cost is not excessive but the requirements are. To be a Certified Organic roaster, you can only use your roaster for Certified Organic coffee. This is tricky and challenging for most small and medium-sized roasters as they may only have one roaster and do not want to / cannot afford to be restricted to only roasting Certified Organic coffee. To receive certification roasters must also prove that they have dedicated Certified Organic grinders and packaging machines, that they only use organic packaging, and that all companies that have had control of the beans for processing are also Certified Organic. At Mills, as a medium-sized roaster with two large roasters, this is too much of an ask. We engage in direct trade from non-Certified Organic farms and really love to offer wild, indigenous coffees like Sumatra and specialty Ethiopians. Like many other small and medium-sized roasters, we use only the highest-quality, sustainably-grown arabicas and choose not to complete Organic certification. Given we cannot use the Certified Organic label even on coffees that are Certified Organic, we refer to those coffees as organically-grown or naturally-grown.

In our experience, naturally-grown coffees that are not Certified Organic are of equal or better quality to their Certified peers — and they are most often better for the farmer. A substantial percentage of high-grown, shade-grown arabicas are grown on small plots, high in the mountains, nurtured and harvested by indigenous people who practice traditional, natural farming techniques. In many places, such as Sumatra, pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer use is almost unknown. In the rare chance that a farmer has access to pesticides or fertilizers, most cannot afford to purchase them. In less remote areas, such as Central America, where herbicides and pesticides are an option, most growers of high-quality arabica will only use them under extreme circumstances, such as to ward of coffee rust disease, which could damage an entire crop and drag a farmer into financial ruin if not treated.

How do I purchase a coffee that is good for the earth, good for the animals, and good for my conscience?

Talk to your roaster and find out how they source their beans. Many small and medium-sized roasters either engage in direct trade and / or purchase through upstanding brokers who work directly with farmers and co-ops. A quality roaster should be able to tell you exactly where your beans grew and how they were grown and processed. Your roaster should also be able to tell you which of their coffees are Certified Organic — even if they can’t market their coffee using the label. If speaking with the roaster is too challenging, look for the following words in a coffee’s description: high-grown, shade-grown, wild-grown, natural, naturally-grown, organically-grown, and passive organic. If you drink decaffeinated coffee, look for coffee that has been naturally decaffeinated using either the CO2 or Swiss Water Process decaffeination systems. Follow these simple suggestions and you will truly have the best your cup can offer to you, to the environment, and to the growers.

If you enjoyed this entry, check out the rest of our Sustainability Series or our entry on Direct Trade vs. Fair Trade.

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