Stroll through a health food store or your local supermarket, and you’ll see many products displaying an organic label. But what does ‘organic’ actually stand for?
Organic agriculture promotes a range of sustainable practices, like soil and water conservation, that lead to an increase in biodiversity. Organic could be considered as a model that aims to create equilibrium between humans and nature – satisfying the needs of both while maintaining or enhancing the environment.
My interest in organic was sparked by my first trip to the origin earlier this year when I visited Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza (FAF) in São Paulo, Brazil. This is a certified organic farm run by Silvia and Marcos Croce with Felipe, their son, in charge of coffee quality. But while FAF has managed to create a model of organic farming that produces high-quality coffee, others struggle and face many challenges, particularly when it comes to speciality.
“If the selling point is that the coffee is organic (like with Fairtrade certification) then quality and flavour are not necessarily the primary concern,” says James Bailey, head of quality at Workshop Coffee Co.
At the consumer end of the spectrum, a certified coffee is usually purchased for the certification alone, with no special regard to its quality. A similar situation exists with marketing of an organic coffee – the certification, not the quality. This could potentially be one of the main reasons certified organic coffee is not in the good graces of the speciality industry, which is focused on the cup quality.
“The main complaint is that much of the organic coffee is commercial coffee asking 10 cents/lb above commercial price,” says Alec Oyhenart, director of operations at Nordic Approach, which specialises in sourcing and importing green coffee and supplies speciality roasters all over Europe.
This can make finding good speciality organic coffee a challenge, but, according to Fabio Ferreira, a roaster and director of Notes Coffee Roasters & Winebar, “organic coffee can also be synonymous with high-quality coffee, as the terrific work that Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza has been doing all these years, not only cultivating the coffee organically but also encouraging their neighbours to do the same. Their results are incredible in the cup and as a [farming] model too,” he says.
So, if it’s achievable, why aren’t more organic farms producing quality coffee? The main reason could be that organic coffee farming presents many challenges – the first being the certification procedure itself. It can be a costly, time-consuming process as it takes a minimum of three years for a farm to convert to organic. For farmers, it’s a huge financial risk, especially when producers must pay the fees for certification and inspections.
It’s important to remember that the organic label only assures the coffee has been produced, processed and handled according to certain standards. It doesn’t guarantee the end quality. There isn’t even an agreed quality standard for organic coffee and certification requirements vary from country to country.
Another problem for the speciality industry is that farmers aren’t incentivised to produce high-quality organic.
“Certification gives you a differential above the C market, the coffee market price, but it’s not enough,” says Felipe Croce of FAF. “It’s not enough to support a healthy model of organics.”
This might all indicate the certification model is flawed. Christer Söderberg, CEO and the founder of the Open World Foundation, an organisation involved in sustainable development projects, shares his thoughts.
“I don’t believe in certification models,” he says. “Initially, I think it was a good idea and created a certain trust between consumers and retailers. But that trust has been abused, so certification is no longer reliable. I believe in establishing direct relationships which provide an excellent opportunity to tell a story. If the story is genuine, and the growers authentically interested in high-quality organic coffee, they will develop a strong and growing relationship with their customers.”
Even so, the situation for many farmers is that organic farming is not financially beneficial. According to Verena Seufert in her report Organic Agriculture as an Opportunity for Sustainable Agricultural Development, the yields in organic farming are typically much lower than those achieved through conventional methods. Organic farming also requires about three times the manual labour for
adequate weed management. In countries like Brazil, where labour is expensive, the cost of coffee production is significantly higher and the premiums paid for organic barely cover it.
Lack of knowledge is another challenge that organic producers face.
“Farmers and agronomists still don’t have a great knowledge or experience about how to farm organically,” says Felipe Croce, “A lot of the studies and developments on organics have been done in temperate climates, like Europe and the US. When you work in a tropical climate, it’s a different story.”
This view is supported by an article in the International Journal for Rural Development by Gian L. Nicolay and Brian Baker from the Research Institute of Organic Development (FiBL) in Switzerland. In fact, the authors also added that “the need to conduct organic agriculture research is arguably greater in the tropics, with its more dynamic and fragile ecosystems.”
In most coffee-growing countries around the world, respective governments do not invest enough in research on organics. The FiBL also adds that, “public and private support for organic farming research, extension and education lags far behind the funding, infrastructure and staff involved in conventional and biotech agriculture.”
All of this can be discouraging for the average farmer, who usually decides to farm organically because of personal beliefs. In his article Organic Coffee: Why Latin America’s farmers are abandoning it, Ezra Fischer confirms that some farmers simply convert to conventional farming due to no financial benefits and lack of support from the government.
So, how does all this affect the market for high-quality coffee? “As a quality-focused importer, we have to be focused on cup quality first and foremost,” says Alec Oyhenart of Nordic Approach. “We can’t pay premium prices for coffees that don’t perform at a high level, even if they are sustainable.” This approach makes a lot of sense as “a unique quality, a distinct taste and personality” is what differentiates speciality from commercial coffee, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.
“My viewpoint is that quality in the cup and sustainability are intrinsically linked,” says Tim Williams, director of operations at Workshop Coffee Co. “We can’t afford to just look at or finance coffees that are only going to perform for one season – we want and need to see ongoing improvements at a farm level year on year, that benefit the soil and environs in which our coffee grows. We believe that trying to find the producers who are on board with this idea, and offering them support, is at the core of sustainability.”
So whether the market for high-quality organic and sustainable coffee, certified or not, is yet to be established, there is no doubt that organic and sustainable models of farming can benefit the environment and also us. With the threat of global warming and its effect on the future of the high-quality coffee production, we should support them now more than ever.
The quest for the best quality in a cup is the essence of the speciality industry. But we should also feel responsible for the effect the farming model that has produced the coffee we are drinking has had on the environment and the lives of the farmers.
Speciality coffee roasters do not cut corners on the quality – so if it is possible to produce high-quality organic coffee with an outstanding flavour-profile, shouldn’t we work towards achieving this goal on a bigger scale and making sustainable farming more economically viable for everyone involved?
If your daily cup of coffee can help the environment and still taste amazing, then why not?