Organic certified coffees: Helpful or Harmful?

You might notice that we don’t carry many certified coffees on our website such as Fair Trade, Rain Forest Alliance, UTZ, and most importantly Organic. We get asked about this all the time, and we debate it ourselves just as often. The bottom line is that certifications can be convenient — an easy shorthand for something "more ethical" — while also obscuring the real problems in coffee supply. To require  certifications is, we think, a classic top-down solution that puts more burdens on those who can least afford it (coffee farmers) while helping roasters make more money.

When it comes to Spanish oranges, for example, organic can be a good thing — it ensures a baseline set of principles in an already industrialised, chemical-prone system. In contrast, much of specialty coffee is farmed organically on smallholdings and always has been. This isn't because coffee producers are a bunch of enlightened eco warriors. Instead, it's because they're incredibly poor by the standards of consuming countries and often can't afford agricultural chemicals or machines. So while we've seen the damage of industrialised agriculture in our consuming counties, including fertiliser abuse, many coffee producers are still stuck in pre-industrial peasantry where they can only dream of being able to boost production chemically like farmers in the global North. 

Given this context, just imagine asking a producer who is barely making ends meet to commit to a three-year process to go organic, spending additional money with piles of new paperwork, all with no guarantee of better sales at the end. It's insulting to someone who is already farming responsibly and it adds cost and risk just so the coffee roaster can charge more for "organic certified" coffee. It's a pretty dangerous game, from our post-industrial moral viewpoint, to ask pre-industrial coffee growers to prove themselves to us, possibly against their own business interests. Working with these smaller farmers is where we can have the most impact as a small roastery, and writing them off because they can’t afford certification doesn't make sense. 

Even those who do use some fertiliser tend to use the least amount possible because it's one of their highest input costs. Ultimately, in cases where farmers are currently using fertiliser, an immediate transition to none at all might not be the best solution if we’re putting their livelihoods first (which we believe is the priority). Some of our producers are already blowing the doors off organic standards with permaculture and low-carbon practices. And if we can help subsidize others to move toward organic fertiliser, organic compost, or biodynamic practices by paying more for the coffee then we're totally up for that — if our partner farmers are interested. The truth is, organic certification doesn't guarantee any sort of environmental sustainability in coffee specifically: We've all seen the stories about massive organic farms depleting water tables and devastating biodiversity. We’ve also personally seen certified organic farmers buying all of their neighbours' non-organic coffee and selling it as their own.

What we're doing right now

So here's what we do: Our current buying practices aim to source organically and biodynamically grown coffees specifically. First, we prioritize spray-free coffees. Pesticides are nasty stuff for our health and that of the planet. Thankfully, most small-holder coffee is spray free as it’s not affordable for farmers. There are also many coffee varietals that have been developed to be pest-resistant, and these are increasingly common. With the very few coffees we stock from larger farms, we ensure those farms are spray free (and sometimes go for certified coffees in these cases).

Next, we stock a LOT of Ethiopian coffees from small cooperatives. Coffees grown in Ethiopia are almost all organic (although not certified), since they’re grown in forest gardens and the people there don’t generally have access to fertilisers. They’re also grown almost entirely on smallholder farms or in back yards and gardens with plenty of other plant life. In other words, it's often natural, somewhat wild, and biodynamically rich just because it's native to Ethiopia.

Another great example is our Peruvian set of coffees that we’re starting to source in larger volumes with our partners at Falcon. They have a huge presence on the ground in Peru, and have done immense work on minimizing fertiliser use with their partner farmers there while paying full-time researchers to examine various aspects of sustainability in the supply side of the industry. Training farmers to analyze soil samples has reduced fertiliser use there by a considerable amount, all while maintaining production. It saves the farmer money and it's good for the planet.

Finally and most importantly, we spend money on coffees and projects that help empower farmers to grow biodynamically, like our coffees from Guerrero, so that they don’t need as much (if any) fertiliser. We think that you can actually taste these farming practices in the complexity of the coffee, and how well it ages over time.

What should you do about it?

Once again, there's no easy, single solution. What can you do in the meantime if you want to drink coffee that’s the best for yourself and the planet? Ethiopian coffee is usually a safe bet. We stock Mexican coffees from Ensambles in Guerrero year round because we think they’re the best thing going in terms of sustainability. Crucially, these are coffees where the people in producing countries are leading the way on sustainable practices, not us. Ultimately, we think empowering farmers and paying them fairly will go farther ecologically than insisting on organic standards dictated by us. The problem here is one of power, not specific chemicals.