My recent post “Farmers are abandoning organic coffee — and it’s your fault” generated several interesting comments. The message — that despite increasing demand for organic coffee, the prices buyers are willing to pay are not enough to cover the added cost of organic production — is not new and has been fairly well researched. A couple of people commented that lost yields (less coffee produced per unit of land) under organic methods are often overlooked when discussing overall organic production costs.
How much yield is lost under organic coffee farming methods, and what causes it? I looked at several peer-reviewed papers that examined the costs of organic versus conventional coffee production that included information on the difference in yield in the two systems.
The difference in yields
A paper comparing 10 paired organic and conventional farms in Costa Rica , found that five of the organic farms met or exceeded production of their conventional counterparts over a three-year period, but that the average mean yield of the organic farms combined was 22% lower than that of the conventional farms. They calculated average organic yield as 1080 kg/ha of green coffee, versus 1386 kg/ ha for conventional.
Two studies from Mexico [2,3] indicated yields 28 and 44% lower for organic farms versus conventional. In Nicaragua, the organic yields were 33% lower than conventional (789 kg/kg versus 1183) . Yields for organic coffee were calculated at 43% lower for Costa Rica, but equal in Guatemala, and only 2% lower for Honduras .
In the latter study, this discrepancy between countries was attributed to variations in technification levels. The majority of Costa Rican coffee is conventional, high-input and high-yield, bolstered by years of industry support for higher-yielding varieties and technification. Yields for organic coffee are much lower in contrast. On the other hand, there is less organizational,financial, and logistical support for farmers in countries like Honduras. Their conventional coffee is not as technified and it’s yields are lower, and not much better than organic.
What causes lower yield?
Whether organic or conventional, coffee yield depends on many factors, including annual climatic factors and varying densities of both coffee and shade trees. While some loss in productivity comes in organic production is related into increased use of shade (which can result in fewer flowers, and therefore fruit, per plant), the main culprit is the difficulty in obtaining enough organic fertilizer.
Coffee requires very high amounts of nutrients. For instance, it takes about 2000 kg of organic fertilizer to supply 40 kg of nitrogen to a hectare of land, versus 87 to 267 kg of inorganic fertilizer . Many farmers simply do not have the ability to produce or acquire the additional compost, manures, and other organic matter needed to sustain yields. This is especially true for smallholders with limited resources and limited means of assessing soil health and formulating the right corrective measures .
That is, it’s not just the cost of the raw organic materials, but also the labor involved. The Costa Rican study , for example, found that although more labor was expended for harvesting (those larger yields) on conventional farms, the organic farms spent more on labor in management. So much more added labor that the cost of collecting, preparing, and application of organic fertilizers ended up being as much as the conventional farms spent on all their non-organic chemicals.
The added expense of certification
The Costa Rican study  also found that net income between organic and conventional farms was similar if the cost of certification fees were not included. If they were, the organic price premium would have to be about 38% above the price of conventional coffee to generate similar net income as conventional producers, nearly double what was being received.
Lack of reliable price premium
In theory, the extra price per pound received by farmers for organic coffee compensates them for lower yields and added costs. In practice, this is often not the case.
It’s not unusual for organic farms to get no premiums. They have to sell their coffee as conventionally-grown because an organic processing mill is not available to them — one of the requirements for organic certification is segregation from conventional coffee throughout the supply chain. In Nicaragua, for instance, organic trade channels for small producers outside the cooperative membership were nearly non-existent .
These studies noted that price premiums for organic coffee were closely related to coffee quality. In Costa Rica, where overall coffee quality is high, both conventional and organic coffee received good prices on the market. No matter the origin, the higher the coffee quality, the less important price premiums for certification (whether organic, Fair Trade, etc.) become — the extra money paid to farmers for high quality, specialty coffee is a higher percentage of the total cost than the certification premium .
One analysis of the economic sustainability of organic coffee  summed things up:
“…there appears to be considerable injustice between the extreme preconditions demanded for ‘organics’ by the largely urban consumer of the industrialized world and the modest rewards received by the organic coffee growers for their strenuous efforts. From an agronomic point of view, there is also considerable ground for criticism on the principles of organic farming when applied to coffee. … It is concluded that the concept of organic farming in its strict sense, when applied to coffee, is not sustainable and also not serving the interests of the producer and consumer as much as the proponents would like us to believe.”
What’s the solution?
The prohibition against any use of inorganic fertilizers prevents taking advantage of the many methods of efficient nutrient management developed in coffee production , and creates a barrier to farmers wanting to produce organic coffee. Frankly, as ecologist, I am far more concerned with pesticide application than fertilizer application. I hate the idea of any more additions to the many certification schemes already available, but it would be helpful if there were some distinction in organic certification (e.g., “completely chemical free” and “pesticide free”). A best-case scenario would provide price premiums to farmers that used no pesticides, and mostly organic fertilizers supplemented with some synthetic nutrients. It would allow farmers to grow coffee in a far more environmentally-sensitive manner — including increased shade that could also provide further income from crop diversification — and still compete in the marketplace.
Another new certification isn’t going to happen, at least anytime soon. This brings us back to square one: know where your coffee comes from, how it is grown, and be willing to pay more to reward farmers for their efforts to make your world a little better place. If you are buying your coffee from a specialty roaster that has good relationships with their importers and/or farmers, information on how your coffee is grown is available if you make the effort to look or ask. Plus, you will be drinking better coffee and supporting farmers that are paid a quality premium.
 Lyngbæk, A. E., R. G. Muschler, and F. L. Sinclair. 2001. Productivity and profitability of multistrata organic versus conventional coffee farms in Costa Rica. Agroforestry Systems 53: 205–213.
 Nigh, R. (1997). Organic agriculture and globalization: a Maya associative corporation in Chiapas, Mexico. Human Organization 56:427–436.
 Pulschen, L., and Lutzeyer, H.-J. 1993. Ecological and economic conditions of organic coffee production in Latin America and Papua New Guinea. Angewandte Botanik 67: 204–208 (cited and summarized in .)
 Valkila, J. 2009. Fair Trade organic coffee production in Nicaragua — Sustainable development or a poverty trap? Ecological Economics 68:3018-3025.
 Kilian., B., C. Jones, L. Pratt, and A. Villalobos. 2006. Is sustainable agriculture a viable strategy to improve farm income in Central America? A case study on coffee. Journal of Business Research 59:322-330.
 Grossman, J. M. 2003. Exploring farmer knowledge of soil processes in organic coffee systems of Chiapas, Mexico. Geoderma 111:267-287.
 Van der Vossen, H. A. M. 2005. A critical analysis of the agronomic and economic sustainability of organic coffee production. Experimental Agriculture 41:449-473.
Photo by Leigh Wolf under a Creative Commons license.
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.
Rice, R. 2001. Noble Goals and Challenging Terrain: Organic and Fair Trade Coffee Movements in the Global Marketplace. Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics 14: 39-66.
Photo by Leigh Wolf under a Creative Commons license.