Farmers are abandoning organic coffee – and it’s your fault

by on January 11, 2010

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 [1]. 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 [2], 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 [3], “cheap” coffee is no longer cheap for anybody.

[1] 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).

[2] From the ground up: organic coffee certification, production, and processing. Coffee Talk Magazine, November 2009 (PDF).

[3] See the section on The Environmental Dimensions of Coffee Production in the report, Coffee, Conservation, and Commerce in the Western Hemisphere, by the National Resources Defense Council.

See also:

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.

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Revised on January 6, 2013

Posted in Certifications,Organic coffee

Peter January 11, 2010 at 11:07 am

I think that people are willing to pay more for organic coffee, but I think the problem lies with the retailers. They are making some extreme markups at the point of sale and this is causing the coffee to sell less, which has driven down the prices that the buyers are willing to pay the farmers. I would point the fingers at them rather than the consumer.

Gunnar Engblom January 11, 2010 at 11:51 am

Another problem is that "organic" is not addressing the right issues. In Peru the organic fertilizer in use to get certification as organic, is either Chicken farm guano (stuffed with antibiotics and fed with fishmeal from the anchoveta industry) or guano from the seabird colonies ff the Humboldt current which is highly invasive when harvesting the guano. Furthermore, shadegrown becomes more and more monocultures as the old shade trees are replaced with young managable Inga and Albizia. Neither of these contain epiphytes such as lichens and bromeliads, or coiled leaves that are important for Cerulean Warbler.

I would like to pay extra for a coffee which is truly birdfriendly. Artificial fertilizers are not an ecological problem in most South America, where all surplus nutrients are rapidly consumed by the rain forest ecosystem on nutrient poor soil. Thus organic coffee in Peru is not necessarily bird friendly.
See the below debate article from my blog.

Julie January 11, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I totally agree with you, Gunnar, and have referenced your work with Cerulean Warblers and shade coffee in the notes of a previous post. Peru is a classic example — as one of the world's leading producers of organic coffee — of a commodified, intensive approach to organic coffee, resulting in a lot of low-quality stuff grown in questionable ways. Readers, for a nice overview of how commodification works in organic markets, see Michael Pollan's piece on Wal-Mart's organic campaign. It's part of the problem here.

Julie January 12, 2010 at 10:38 am

USDA organic certification is one of the strongest and best-enforced certifications — for what it does, which is ensuring no use of synthetic chemicals on crops. No certification can truly "guarantee meaningful environmental responsibility." I'm not saying this is what you mean, but it seems defeatist to just throw up your hands and decide to ignore a product that DOES have demonstrated environmental benefits for a cheaper product that in all likelihood had NEGATIVE environmental impact just because the former isn't perfect.

I don't particularly endorse buying organic products from large retailers, but can say that smaller roasters — at least the many that I have talked to or worked with — do not use "higher-than-necessary mark-ups." They work on much smaller margins and the price the consumer pays is in line with the added premiums provided to the farmer (often for quality in addition to organic certification), their own costs involved with organic certification, and the value added by actually roasting high quality beans that taste better.

Coffee is not an essential food item. It is, despite our love, addiction, and habits, an optional luxury. Personally, I cannot imagine indulging myself with a product when I know I've screwed over someone further down the supply chain or contributed to environmental harm. This is an abstract concept for most coffee drinkers, but I've spent time on enough coffee farms to see exactly how this works. As I've pointed out here many times, it doesn't take much more cash to drink coffee that is better than the cheap, destructive stuff. I think the option, frankly, is to drink less but better coffee.

I don't mean to be offensive to the author of the last comment (or anyone else), I'm taking the hard line here to illustrate what I see as wrong with the implied mindset.

crankycheryl January 12, 2010 at 9:41 am

Shame on us for not paying too much, even with the knowledge that stores have a higher-than-necessary mark-up on organics, and how the organic "brand" does not really guarantee meaningful environmental responsibility, and the realities of many household budgets? Really? It seems wacky to demand that people pay more than they can afford for uncertain results and quality.

Daniel Humphries January 12, 2010 at 4:00 pm


But this article does not address the real reason one has to pay more for organic coffee. It's because organic practices DRASTICALLY reduce output. I have seen — in person, mind you — farms that have lost 70% of production. The farmers don't think it's so all-fired great. You would have to pay 3 times as much just to make up for lost yield, over and above anything you paid for the certification process or cost of inputs.

That's the side of "organic" that people rarely look at. It's assumed that the magic bounty of unspoiled Mother Nature will take over in a harmonious ecotopia, and yields will miraculously increase. In reality, people use modern farming practices because they work extraordinarily well.

Bradly January 13, 2010 at 11:39 am

RE:Daniel Humphries' comment, the article makes a point of saying that one of the main issue is yields
"More notably, by using chemical fertilizers a farmer can coax about 485 pounds of coffee out of one acre, versus 285 pounds per acre on an organic farm, according to CATIE."
But I agree that the loss of production is often overlooked and taken for granted.

Julie January 13, 2010 at 6:51 am

The two papers I referenced in the footnotes of the post are good examples of the extra costs, lowered yields, and reduced profits, using farmers in Mexico and Nicaragua. Yields were lower, although not as dramatic as 70%.

I have never come across a study or meta-analysis that looked at how conventional producers fare in the long run when environmental or health costs are figured in. Do they incur added health costs from acute or chronic illness due to chemical exposure? Do they incur increasing costs over time if more fertilizers are needed to maintain yield in depleted soils? At what point do they have to replace their coffee trees (I have heard 6 vs. 30 years), and how do they afford it? Or do they just rip them out and begin a different crop? Since conventional, chemical coffee farming tends to be sun farming, how do these farms fare with soil erosion, or buffering against fluctuating weather?

Personally, I think the restrictions for organic certification for coffee growers in the developing world are often unrealistic, particularly in the realm of fertilization. Yet the impact of coffee-growing methods and our buying habits for a crop of this size and importance are not trivial. I just want coffee drinkers to start to think about what they're drinking!

Julie January 18, 2010 at 9:35 am

Because organic certification doesn't allow for inorganic fertilizers, a big shortcoming in my opinion. I'll be talking about this in my next post!

Gunnar Engblom January 18, 2010 at 8:50 am

So why isn't there a demand for high volume production using chemical fertilizers, that preserves habitat and don't use pesticides? That ought to be the most bird friendly coffee.

Gunnar Engblom January 18, 2010 at 11:07 am

Exactly Julie. I am glad this is being addressed. I think we all have been a bit fooled about all this organic thinking. It makes sense in where there is a lot of leakage into ecosystem and where lakes become eutrofied and overgrown and as in the Baltic where the leaking nutrients from conventional agriculture changes the conditions for the life forms that live there…..but to apply the same thinking to a totally different eco-system and expect this to be eco-friendly is nonsense.

I have often thought to liase with a coffee grower that would use bird-friendly approach and chemical fertilizers, but since there is no branding nor certification for this kind of coffee, it is hard to find a market for it, if only limited to Kolibri Expeditions's (my) customers.
Meanwhile, I stopped a few years ago serving Nescafe (NoEsCafe), to our clients and instead offer French pressed Villa Rica coffee – with no certification, as I am not sure certification is actually better for the birds.

I wonder though if the same problem is present in other coffee growing countries. I read a report on Cerulean Warbler from Venezuela, where it is said that the old shade trees are being cleaned from Bromeliads and other epiphytes, as it increases moisture and risk of mold.

howard January 22, 2010 at 8:49 am

the price issues are issues from my pov. as a bulk consumer, i pay what the seller posts as the sale price, or don't drink any coffee at all. i haven't found bulk packed roasted beans that are organic to be priced out of my reach in the last few years. actually i can't remember ever having to put back a bag of them since i started drinking coffee.

the one place i do see pricing going out of line is at the retail distribution end where someone makes a cup of coffee and hands it to the buyer. those prices are a lot higher, but it is then a 'retail' organic coffee price problem, with a retail chain or retail store coffee cost model problem.

for example…

organic 2 x cost organic
bulk cost bulk cost
$ / 5lb $43.00 $86.00
5 lbs 5 5
$ / lb $8.60 $17.20

cups/ lb 25 35 25 35

$ / cup $0.34 $0.25 $0.69 $0.49

it just doesn't compute that coffee is too costly now as organic or that even if we paid twice the current organic price, it would be too costly.
there are OTHER costs which drive the overall matrix besides what the farmer gets as their revenue.

Arthur Cundy February 2, 2010 at 9:41 pm

This post is really enlightening… I have had tasted a lot of imported instant coffee before and nothing beats the real thing.

Chitra Lama February 16, 2010 at 3:02 am

Dear sir,

We are looking for the potential buyers of organic coffee. We have a green bean, roased and powered "Organic Coffee" from the organic lands of Nepal. We hope such natural organic products are highly prefered in any world like Canada.We have Australian NASA company Certified Organic coffee. If you are interested in establishing business relation, Please don't hesitate to contact.

Best Regards,
Super Active Eyes Trade

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