I often hear comments by café owners or some of the less enlightened in the coffee business such as, “aren’t all coffees organic?” or “we only buy organic coffee --the broker told me that the farmers don’t use pesticides”. Unfortunately, neither of these comments is true, and I thought it was about time to state the case for certified organics right here.
First of all, it is important for folks to realize that coffee is the second most heavily pesticided crop in the world after cotton. Period. The top ten chemicals used on coffee are either banned for use in the USA or strictly limited and heavily regulated. Twenty years ago, many of us young (-er) eco-activists tried to stop the export to the developing world of chemicals that were not allowed to be used in the USA. The ethical reasoning was clear enough, if we aren’t allowed to put them on our workers and in our environment, why should we dump them in less tightly regulated environments? Also, since most of these chemicals were used on food that would be exported to us, shouldn’t we stop this exporting Circle of Poison? Good luck, we couldn’t overcome the agricultural lobby then or now on this one. Some of the chemicals used in coffee are DDT, malathion, parathion, dieldrin, endrin, roundup and paraquat. Does that leave a good taste in your mouth?
Add to the inherent dangers in these chemicals the problem that most farmers who use them can’t read the warning labels in English, German and Spanish and a real problem ensues. The majority of farmers in the world are indigenous peoples who may not read or write the languages on the warning labels. Even in Latin America I usually work with farmers who can’t read Spanish, and the warnings aren’t printed in Quiche, Mam, Tzutujil or other indigenous languages. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen children or adults throwing handfuls of white chemicals over plants without using any protective gear or applicators, or even knowing what the chemical was.
It is essential for consumers to understand that “certified organic” is more than just farmers not using pesticides. In order to become certified, farmers must undertake a three year chemical free period, complemented by training in erosion control water protection, mulching and composting of plant wastes and a lot more. A very stringent, transparent system of internal controls must be adopted and followed to monitor adherence to the organic program. Certified organic farms make a strong commitment to the earth and her inhabitants that is far beyond that of the ordinary farmer.
It is often difficult for consumers to read past the marketing hype of major companies and organizations that would like the commercial benefit of organics without paying the farmer more or making a real commitment. I am sorry to say that Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade share this lack of commitment. Neither major label requires certified organic status from its growers, but both make all sorts of earth friendly claims about their products. Many people associate Fair Trade with organic, because historically most Fair Trade cooperatives were also certified organic. However, as Fair trade has, ahem, broadened its reach to embrace large multinational players in the coffee, banana, and other markets, that equation can no longer be assumed. For example, Starbucks only Fair Trade coffee, “Estima”, is not certified organic (which also means Starbucks doesn’t have to pay the twenty cent organic premium to the farmers!). Interestingly, neither of the two (that’s it??) organic Starbucks coffee are Fair Trade (so they don’t pay the Fair Trade premium on these!)! I have heard that where once 85% of all Fair Trade certified coffees were also organic, the figure is now down to about 65%. That’s certainly better than Rainforest Alliance, which has a strong environmental program but has no requirement for organics either.
We are 100% certified organic because we believe in the value of organics to the earth, the farmers and their ecologies and to the consumers, as well. Coffee people who make claims that their products are organic but are not certified are either blowing smoke or are truly ignorant of what this issue is all about.