Thank you again for taking the time to read these posts and follow along as our business grows.
My idea with these blogs is to share what I have learned and experienced in the coffee world while trying to create a sustainable product.
I am currently completing a Master in Environmental Management and Sustainability from Royal Roads University and I have spent 14 years living in Honduras working in the field of environmental management.
I hope to keep this space interesting and funny while sharing some of my hopes and concerns and of course resources from people and organizations a lot more qualified.
I also hope to share this space with my partners and staff who are excited about topics that they want to write about. Thanks again for supporting our business.
Is our Coffee Organic?
Sometimes we get asked if our coffee is certified organic.
It isn’t, and I personally make a point of communicating to the farmers I work with that I will never make organic certification a requirement or pay more for it…
Once you’re embedded in a food system you start to learn about the interconnectedness around you and in the case of growing coffee, one of the commonly overlooked impacts to the local community and planet is deforestation.
The global risk to forests and biodiversity loss is discussed by (Lernoud, 2017) who states that 80% of coffee growing areas worldwide used to be rainforests and there is an increasing window of opportunity or risk for coffee farmers to participate in biodiversity conservation or continue deforestation.
The overlap between biodiversity hot spots and coffee growing areas creates an environmental risk associated with increased coffee production, specifically land-use change. In Chiapas Mexico, the area of study for (Jurjonas 2017) has reported 81% deforestation since 1990 and according to the large-scale standardized surveys of coffee farmers in the area, land-use change is being caused by organic certified farms, despite deforestation being implicitly prohibited under the certification mechanism.
How is this possible if the farms are audited against organic certification requirements? Well, Jurjonas, (2017) specifically criticized the ability of auditors who verify farms against certification requirements and identified it was impossible to determine the land-use history of organic farms. Jurjonas (2017) explained there is no environmental benefit to organic farm certification without the certainty that the farm did not replace a healthy forest, which is currently impossible to prove.
At the same time, coffee farmers are not paid close to enough for the work and risk that they take on to grow our beans. Most of the world’s coffee is grown by small coffee farmers that are exposed to extreme price volatility, poverty and risk of exploitation (Tampe, 2018). Just like farmers of numerous other agricultural goods, we are taking advantage of our political advantage to keep some people living in poverty while others live in abundance. The money is made further up the supply chain and that is just the way we are told the world works.
Efforts to help the small farmer are made through Fair Trade coffee certification which is often grouped with Organic certification and ensures what they consider a fair price, In Honduras this is around $1.40/lb, plus an additional $0.20/lb when the coffee is certified organic and another $0.20/lb to social projects decided on by the cooperative. However, Jena and Grote (2017) called the positive benefit created by Fairtrade certification to be slow and modest with no impact on the statistic that 84% of certified farmers are still extremely poor.
I believe there is perverseness in the certification schemes themselves. If you are told this is the solution and all you have to do is buy Organic Fairtrade or Rainforest alliance or whatever is in fashion, we just have confidence and that lets us have our coffee guilt-free, but as the world changes, we can no longer take what we eat and drink for granted. I have the same feelings when it comes to cooperatives and not for profit organizations that work in the industry. There is great efforts and advances being made, but it seems to come down to the people working on the initiatives and organizing the groups of farmers to how sustainable they truly are. In the end, the cooperatives control most information going between farmers and exporters and buyers and there is too much space for corruption in these groups that are being managed and run in developing nations governed in most cases by corrupt institutions – to blindly trust cooperatives that are born in this environment is naïve.
So why are farmers encroaching on forests?
It could be the obvious result of organic certification that they need to produce more coffee to make the same payments because organic coffee methods reduce production (Vanderhaegen et al. (2018) and Mitiku et al. (2017).
It could also be because Organic and Fairtrade certification has created an oversupply of mediocre coffee. If farmers are told they get a better price for coffee per lb with no obligation for quality then they will just grow more coffee and pick whatever cherries are in front of them and why shouldn’t they?
According to Tampe (2018), this oversupply creates more inequality and gives buyers the ability to demand more from producers instead of working to empower producers.
Additionally, what actually gets into the hands of the farmer for their troubles?
In a nine-year study in Ethiopia based on government statistics and data provided by exporters through surveys and questionnaires and interviews of local producers, Minten et al. (2018) concluded that only one-third of premiums paid to Fairtrade and organic certifications reach the producer and no evidence of impact of social benefit were found as a result of communal investments.
Organic methods are great for sure, and more and more should be put in practice to ensure a healthy product and healthy conditions for workers and the environment, but relying on organic certifications that increase costs to farmers creates an oversupply of crappy coffee ensures loss of production, loss of income, and a loss of healthy rainforests – which means organic certification is not helping move coffee towards a sustainable product.
If you are basing your support for organic coffee on that assumption, you might be wrong.
On top of all these potential negative impacts for farmers and the environment organic farming in coffee is actually pretty common for many small farmers regardless of these certifications – for example In Costa Rica researchers claimed coffee farmers were chosen by the cooperative for organic certification based on levels of existing organic practices (Snider et al., 2017). And likewise in India, converting to organic was considered straightforward since most farmers in the region had little access to chemical fertilizers or pesticides (Jena & Grote, 2017).
So I think certification is mostly a costly pain in the ass with more potential negative impacts than benefits and might just be more about marketing empowerment and sustainability than actually supporting it.
So, the answer is Seis Cielo coffee roasters does not buy or promote organic certified coffees and most likely we won’t.
Thank you for reading!