It’s surprisingly hard to find sustainable coffee in the shops. In this article, we’ll guide you on how to find the best organic coffee out there.
Licensed Q Arabica Grader, M.A. Journalism
If you’re a real coffee lover, you also care about Mother Earth.
See, even though it’s easy to forget, coffee is a fruit. And like other fruits, coffee is always superior when grown under the right conditions.
That means areas with a diverse eco-system, with plenty of shade trees, and no (or little) use of chemical insecticides and fungicides.
Unfortunately, it can be challenging to find organic coffee beans when you look in your local shop.
In this post, I’ll tell you what to look for if you care about not only your coffee but also the planet.
Organic or not
There is a good reason that organic coffee isn’t that widespread. First of all, it’s a difficult task to to grow arabica coffee no matter how you do it.
The coffee plant is susceptible to a lot of diseases and pests, wiping out millions of plants, and sometimes robbing poor farmers of their livelihood.
Today, one of the worst diseases is known as leaf rust or ‘la roya’ in Spanish.
There are two reasons that diseases have been so prevalent in recent times:
Coffee has a genetic bottleneck, in the sense that most of it derived from a few plants that were brought out of Ethiopia many hundred years ago.
Diseases thrive in farms without biodiversity. And many farms that produce cheap coffee fit that description.
For those reasons, sizeable commercial coffee estates have actually been large breeding grounds for disease.
Organic Coffee Facts
To be certified organic, all fertilizers must be completely organic. (USDA)
There are several types of organic fertilizers, including chicken manure, coffee pulp, bokashi, and traditional compost. (Wiki)
Coffee pulp itself is one of the most important fertilizers (Researchgate)
More people are buying organic coffee than ever before. 44 percent of coffee drinkers are more inclined, or much more inclined, to purchase coffee that is certified as organically grown. (ncausa.org)
75 percent of the world’s organic coffee is grown in Latin America. (CATIE)
About 10 percent of one-off organic farmers had switched to conventional farming because of price pressure from conventional producers. (Wiki
Paperwork is not a priority
So where does all this leave specialty coffee farmers? Well, in a difficult situation.
Most coffee farmers are rather poor smallholders. Their livelihood depends on this year’s harvest and rarely can they afford to think long term.
In fact, only a few coffee plantations can afford to take the risk of being 100 percent organic, as the yield will almost definitely be decimated severely in the years following the transition. Essentially, that means that running an organic operation is a luxury that can only be afforded by the the most wealthy coffee farmers.
The next problem is that organic certifications, such as USDA, aren’t easy to obtain. As a poor farmer in, say Nicaragua or Colombia, it’s probably not high on your list of priorities to go through a bunch of paperwork and spend money to obtain a stamp. Rather, you’re probably busy getting an income so you can provide for your family.
Organic vs. sustainable coffee
Having all this in mind, personally, I think that there is a better way to look at the debate.
All this means that the best coffee will be – somewhat – sustainable. Yes, in some cases there will probably be used a little bit of chemical fertilizer or fungicide, but this can be done while still maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
Premium coffee is grown at high altitudes under shade trees – that’s required to slow down the maturation process of the cherry and to achieve a dense and flavorful bean.
In that sense, it’s hard to imagine a really delicious coffee that is not ‘sustainable’ and in harmony with nature. Sure, it might not have the coveted ‘organic beans’ stamp, but given the circumstances, it will be okay.
The most notable exception to this rule is Kenyan coffee. While delicious it’s a well-known secret inside the coffee trade that the production in this East African country relies upon ample amounts of chemicals.
James Hoffmann on ethical coffee:
“When buying coffee, it is difficult for consumers to ascertain how ethically sourced a particular coffee really is.
Some speciality roasters have now developed buying programmes certified by third parties, but most have not. It is fairly safe to presume that if the coffee has been kept traceable, has the producer’s name(s) on it, or at least the name of the farm, cooperative or factory, then a better price has been paid.
The level of transparency you should expect will vary country by country […] If you find a roaster whose coffee you like, you should be able to ask them for more information about how they source it. Most are more than happy to share this information, and are often extremely proud of the work they do.”
No coffee brand is capable of being 100 % certified organic.
Blue Bottle Coffee is currently one of the most dedicated brands with 85 % of its total coffee sales and all roasteries in the US being certified by CCOF.
If you want to be sure to get the cleanest coffee possible, those guys are your best bet. I’d encourage you to check out their subscription service where you can a free sample before commiting.
One of the most significant problems with coffee today is that people have gotten used to commercial grade coffees that can be bought for pennies. This kind of coffee is grown in these large monoculture farms with low biodiversity. This is what has created a lot of the diseases haunting coffee at the moment.
Unfortunately, it’s going to be really difficult for many of the ‘good guys’ create organic coffee brands before this development stops.
For that reason, I think the best way to think about coffee is not in terms of ‘organic’ or not but rather whether a fair price has been paid to farmers delivering a premium product.
As Western consumers, we’re used to seeing a USDA stamp on every product in the whole foods store, but you have to realize that coffee is not your usual Western product.
In my humble opinion, the way to get the best organic coffee beans is paradoxically to not look for any stamps but to seek out the high-quality single origin coffee.
Hello, and welcome! I'm the editor & founder of this site. I have been a coffee geek since I started home roasting more than a decade ago. Since then, coffee has taken me on countless adventures: From ancient coffee ceremonies in Ethiopia to the volcanos of Sumatra. My background is in journalism, and today I'm also a licensed Q Grader under the Coffee Quality Institute.
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