Organic Coffee

Organic agriculture is a production method that helps ensure biodiversity through minimal use of off-farm inputs; i.e. harmful chemicals, and utilizing production techniques that protect or improve ecological harmony. Organic farming practices aim to avoid the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals, and instead focus on natural and sustainable methods for growing coffee.

Various government and international organizations establish organic standards. Any accredited company  can perform the certification process and the following are examples of basic standards farmers need to meet:

  • Minimal use of off-farm inputs such as synthetic agro-chemicals for three years prior to certification
  • Farmers must keep detailed records regarding production and management plans
  • Annual inspections by an accredited certifier

The organic coffee market has grown tremendously primarily due to consumer interest in the conditions under which coffee is grown as well as increased retail prices as a result of the premium markup on organic coffee. This premium gets spread throughout the coffee distribution chain, but not equally1. In general, retailers receive the highest premium, then roasters, then distributors, then importers.

See also: Coffee Sustainability

A study performed by Jeremy G. Weber in 20112 found it’s very difficult to measure the amount of net premium that reaches the producer due to various factors that may influence the producer’s market performance. Product quality, cooperative and/or estate size, and location all affect market performance for a given coffee. Furthermore, when calculating premiums while only considering the cost of cooperative participation3, the net premiums for southern Mexican farmers for the 2004-2005 season were roughly 5% of total household income. Once you add all the primary and ancillary costs of certification, it’s likely the net premium is zero and possibly a loss.

Organic certification requires farmers to change their production methods and make new investments in infrastructure to support and maintain the certification. The cost for certification to producers can often be prohibitive (especially for smaller farms) and can include direct costs such as certification fees and indirect costs such as costs to implement necessary infrastructure such as compost bins, fermentation tanks, consulting fees, etc.

Because it is so difficult to calculate the net premium for producers, maybe it’s better to think of the premium as a way to subsidize producers’ efforts to improve living conditions and help improve use of natural resources.

See also: Organically Grown Coffee

However, given that social premiums paid for organic coffee aren’t likely to drastically impact farmer’s bottom line and may even be a net cost to the producer, is it a sustainable endeavor?

1. Benoit Daviron, Stefano Ponte, The Coffee Paradox (Zed Books 2005) P. 166
2. Jeremy G. Weber, How Much More Do Growers Receive For Fair Trade-Organic Coffee? (Elsevier Ltd. 2011)
3. Because the cost of certification is so high, often smaller farms work with a cooperative and the cooperative receives the certification.

This article is part of a series on voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). Below are all articles in the series:

Ethical Consumption
Fair Trade Coffee
Why Fair Trade Has Failed Coffee Producers
Ethical Trade
Organic Coffee

Michael C. Wright

Michael is a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently, a graduate with a degree in horticulture and a concentration in horticultural business management. He has over ten years experience in the coffee industry operating on both the supply and demand sides of the value chain.