A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor reports that at least 10% of organic coffee farmers in northern Latin America alone have given up and are returning to producing coffee with chemicals.
Why? Despite increasing demand for organic coffee, the prices buyers are willing to pay are not enough to cover the added cost of organic production.
Buyers aren’t willing to pay adequate prices because consumers apparently are not willing to, either. The U.S. is largest importer of organic coffee in the world. The buck, as they say, stops here.
A typical conventional coffee farm, the piece notes, uses up to 250 pounds of chemical fertilizers (usually petroleum-based) on every acre. I presume this does not include the substantial amount of herbicides and pesticides that are also used in conventional coffee growing.
Still, if farmers are not obtaining an adequate price premium for their organic coffee, the chemicals are still cheaper than the cost of composts (more volume needed than synthetic fertilizers), certification and audit fees, and significant additional labor costs, especially combined with typically-lower yields.
An FAO report cited three other studies that confirmed that the price premium for organic coffee is highly correlated with quality . Thus, producers of organic, high-quality specialty coffee are more likely to cover their costs and make a profit, and continue to grow coffee organically. Producers of low-quality organic coffee sell their coffee at a low or no premium (often to purveyors of cheap organic coffee, e.g., Millstone, Yuban), realize no benefit to the added work and costs of organic production, and either bail out and go back to chemicals or rip out their coffee entirely and go with another crop.
What can you do?
- Pay more for organic (and shade-grown) coffees. Don’t expect the poor farmers in the developing world to subsidize a healthier world for you. It’s ridiculous.
- Don’t be completely wedded to certified coffee. The costs and complications involved in certification are formidable if not insurmountable for perhaps the majority of small farmers , even though many grow coffee with few or no chemicals. Take the time to research your coffee — virtually all of the roasters I recommend in the footer provide details on where their coffees come from and how they are grown. Be willing to pay for these sustainably-grown beans, as well.
When you take into account the fact that the soil and coffee trees on chemical-dependent farms become depleted many years sooner than on organic farms, or the costs involved in environmental and human health due to exposure to chemicals, primarily pesticides , “cheap” coffee is no longer cheap for anybody.
 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2009. The market for organic and Fair Trade coffee. Study prepared in the framework of FAO project GCP/RAP/404/GER. Available online (PDF).
 From the ground up: organic coffee certification, production, and processing. Coffee Talk Magazine, November 2009 (PDF).
How much is organic certifcation worth? Harvest Public Media.
Gaia Estate, a Bird-Friendly coffee grower’s perspective. Birds & Beans Canada blog.
Valkila, J. 2009. Fair Trade organic coffee production in Nicaragua — Sustainable development or a poverty trap? Ecological Economics 68:3018-3025.
Calo, M. and T. A. Wise. 2005. Revaluing Peasant Coffee Production: Organic and Fair Trade Markets in Mexico.Global Development and Environment Institute. Tufts Univ., Medford, MA. PDF.
Photo by Urvish Joshi under a Creative Commons license.