I’m sure once you examine the effects of the pesticides that are commonly used on coffee, you will agree that the workers, the environment, and the folks downstream are all better off if coffee is grown without pesticides. Careful cultivation and biocontrol makes it possible to combat many common pests and grow coffee without these chemicals. And you can support the farms that have taken these steps by purchasing organic coffee.
Organic coffee information
First, a few facts about organic coffee. Certified organic coffee means that it has been produced under standardized conditions, which are verified by inspections. Farms or cooperatives pay for certification, including accommodating inspectors and paying for their travel. American consumers often see the label on the left certifying organic products, including coffee. Requirements for this seal include no use of prohibited substances on the land for at least three years. This includes most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Other certification requirements include a buffer between the coffee and any other crop not grown organically, and a plan that demonstrates methods the prevent erosion and other sustainable methods.
The USDA also accredits other agencies to certify organic products using the same standards. A common one for coffee is the OCIA. There are also various state agencies. The Eco-labels web site has much more information.
Many farms have never used any sort of chemical input on their coffee crops, often because chemicals are expensive and the farmers cannot afford to purchase them. The farms, or cooperatives they belong to, may not have the financial resources to pay to have their product certified organic even if they qualify, because it incurs various fees. These could be considered “passive organic.”
Other farms may be missing an element which disqualifies them from certification. While I believe all of the elements are important, I’d much prefer to buy coffee from, for example, a farm that judiciously applies small amounts of non-organic fertilizer and preserves 100 ha of native forest on its land than a certified organic farm that uses half its land for a cattle pasture.
That being said, if your coffee is not certified organic, it will take careful research to know if your coffee is sourced from farms that practice sustainable methods. Because a number of common coffee pests and pathogens are more difficult to control naturally when the coffee is grown in the sun, it’s often a good bet that organic coffee is also grown under shade. Certified organic coffee represents less than 1% of the market, an astonishingly low figure. Therefore, buying organic coffee is nearly always good for the environment.
A final thought: it is abundantly true that Americans apply more frightening chemicals to their lawns than most coffee farmers do to their crops. And specialty coffee (e.g., not produced by the big four) is still one one of the most rustically farmed crops in the world. I don’t think that makes it hypocritical to encourage and support organic coffee farming. As my mom used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Pesticides birds, humans, and wildlife
- When it comes to pesticides, birds are sitting ducks — Smithsonian fact sheet.
- Dangerous pesticide use in Central America — Pesticide Action Network article.
Coffee without chemicals
- Growing coffee using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) (PDF) — includes section on problems with pesticides in coffee.
- Growing coffee without endosulfan.
- Natural fungal control of coffee borer — abstract of research by USDA.
- Studies in Jamaica show that coffee pests are less numerous in farms which have high bird abundance, which in turn is fostered by shade.
- Report on IPM to control coffee stem borer in Malawi.