Organic coffee and yield

by on January 20, 2010

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 [1], 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) [4]. Yields for organic coffee were calculated at 43% lower for Costa Rica, but equal in Guatemala, and only 2% lower for Honduras [5].

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 [4].  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 [6].

That is, it’s not just the cost of the raw organic materials, but also the labor involved. The Costa Rican study [1], 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 [1] 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 [4].

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 [5].

One analysis of the economic sustainability of organic coffee [7] 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 [7], 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.


[1] 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.

[2] Nigh, R. (1997). Organic agriculture and globalization: a Maya associative corporation in Chiapas, Mexico. Human Organization 56:427–436.

[3] 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 [7].)

[4] Valkila, J. 2009. Fair Trade organic coffee production in Nicaragua — Sustainable development or a poverty trap? Ecological Economics 68:3018-3025.

[5] 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.

[6] Grossman, J. M. 2003. Exploring farmer knowledge of soil processes in organic coffee systems of Chiapas, Mexico. Geoderma 111:267-287.

[7] 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.


See also:

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.


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Revised on November 12, 2012

Posted in Certifications,Organic coffee

Julie January 20, 2010 at 4:35 pm

So, I'd like to hear from Jim and other roasters…other confounding factors aside, is part of the "responsibility" on the consumer to be willing to pay more for organic? Would you buy more organic at a higher price if there were consumer demand at a higher price?

Jim January 20, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Great series of articles.

We just visited farmers we buy from in Costa Rica. They cited yield reductions of about 50% when they take a plot organic – consistent with your numbers. We price organics at about what the market will bear – 8-10% premium, or about a buck a pound. Obviously, to achieve parity, the cost of organic coffee (green) would need to double. That translates to maybe $3-4 a pound premium, i.e., $3-4 MORE than you would pay for a conventional coffee, at the retail level. Speaking for us, we wouldn't sell very much organic coffee at that level.

Peter G January 21, 2010 at 8:16 pm

I have been a coffee buyer for over a decade. I am a passionate and interested student of agriculture. At Counter Culture Coffee, about 70-75% of all the coffee we purchase is certified organic, and we are committed to giving our all to increase this percentage every year.

First of all, let me get this out of the way: I think that making broad statements about how much "lower" yields are from an organic farm is seriously misleading. It would be much more accurate to call yields from NPK-fertilized farms (sometimes called conventional farms) "artificially augmented". Let's remember: chemical fertilizers are created via the Haber process invented in 1909. This process uses electricity to create ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen. This ammonia is used in combination with mineral Potassium and Phosphorous to make macronutrient fertilizer, NPK. Production of this fertilizer is inherently unsustainable: fossil fuels are used to create the electricity and hydrogen to make the the nitrogen, causing pollution, including atmospheric carbon. The Phosphorous and Potassium are mined from mineral sources, which are finite. It's inherently unsustainable, and does not at all resemble either natural ecology or traditional agriculture. There is nothing conventional about "conventional" farming. It's artificial manipulation and enhancement of soil fertility, and it causes a range of ills, including runoff, algal explosions, die-off, etc.

Ok, rant over. My point is that organic yields aren't really "less" than conventional yields, but that artificially inflated "conventional" yields create the impression that normal yields are somehow lacking. Remember too that NPK fertilizing leads to dead soil, and creates a farm that is "addicted" to this kind of fertilizer. A farm is DOA if it cannot get NPKs- what are the yields like then?

NPK fertilizers also have a habit of rising and falling according to oil prices and local inflation. An independent organic farm is responsible for its own fertility, and therefore is much more financially stable.

In my experience, a well managed organic farm is within 10-20 percent of the productivity of a conventional farm. The reason for lower yields is that many small farmers 1. lack good organic management techniques (like compost building and soil testing) and 2. lack access to organic material for composting (many of the farmers have nearly all of their land dedicated to coffee production, and must therefore "import" organic material into their farm for composting and soil building). These could both easily be overcome if there was enhanced availability of organic agriculture training and infrastructure.

I disagree with the notion that there is some sort of way to make synthetic-fertilizer based agriculture sustainable. I disagree with the notion that an uncertified farm can be just as good or better than a certified one. If consumers would just pay the real costs of agriculture (remember, synthetic "conventional" creates the image of cheapness while simply using up resources), we would be able to build a sustainable, thriving web of prosperous coffee farms, making delicious, sustainable coffee more and more available.

Please please please folks, let's support certified organic coffee.

Brenton Head January 22, 2010 at 10:10 pm

People say to me, "How do you support all of those different environmentally responsible products?" Easy, I dont own a CAR!!!!! Try it!!!!! That would send shock waves through the United States, wouldnt it?

Julie January 24, 2010 at 10:30 am

I'm always grateful to Peter when he offers the perspective that I can never have, with only access to academic studies! The reason I pursued this yield thing was that I wondered if dramatic losses were real, how they varied, and what caused them. I love how Peter turned the equation on its head: that "conventional" farms are "artificially augmented". It's similar to how I often think about certifications — that we shouldn't be charging farmers and making them jump through hoops for doing the right thing, but instead discouraging (somehow, I hate dumping it on the producers) unsustainable growing practices.

I also want to clarify that I don't think inorganic, fossil-fuel based fertilization is sustainable (or good). Only that if I have to choose between the lesser of two evils, I am more concerned with pesticides than fertilizer. It seems somewhat reasonable to me (sitting at my desk…I defer to Peter on this) that organic coffee certification could allow some small threshold or emergency/spot application provision for use of inorganic supplements. How those thresholds would be determined I don't know, if it's even a viable option.

Peter also brings up a point I left in the comments of my previous post regarding the long-term effects of "conventional" production — I've so far not come across any quantifiable analysis of its true costs over the long run in biodiversity loss, soil depletion and erosion, human health and sustaining livelihoods, carbon footprints, and on and on.

I may be operating under a misguided notion. Peter says, "I disagree with the notion that an uncertified farm can be just as good or better than a certified one." Are there not farms that would, for example, qualify for Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certification (which must be certified organic plus comply with strong habitat criteria) but just don't pursue the certification for various reasons? I presume it's even more likely there are producers who use no chemicals whatsoever, but don't get certified organic, especially in lieu of low premiums. If I'm way off base I need to be corrected, because it will be another step in my coffee education and change some of the messages I put forth on this site!

Heath Henley January 26, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Recently I spoke with a farmer in El Salvador who had just been certified by the Rainforest Alliance. He only pursued the certification in the last year because of changes in RA's requirements that made him feel like he could comply and not have his hands completely tied in the event of natural occurrences (such as the appearance of broca on a certain portion of his farm).

It sounded like RA does, to an extent, what you are suggesting: allowing spot application of certain "inorganic supplements" (with the exception of a black-list of the "worst").

Any opinion/insight into Rainforest Alliance requirements and/or thresholds?

Julie January 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Rainforest Alliance (RA) does allow inorganic supplements — it has no organic requirement at all, although the standards encourage limiting chemicals. On my left sidebar, you can find links to the RA standards for all crops, and then specific ones for coffee. I've also put together a table that offers a quick comparison of their shade criteria.

RA's less stringent standards and emphasis on inclusiveness is both their strongest asset and worst enemy. The benefits are obvious and you can read about them at their website. But there are two aspects to this inclusiveness that represent a huge sore spot for many people. First, they have certified the products of very large multinationals who typically only certify a very small portion of their purchases and many people consider it greenwashing. Not only might one of these large roasters only use certified beans on one or two of their brands, but typically the product will contain only 30% certified beans. This is allowed, and although anything less than 100% certified beans must go on the label, it is usually not divulged in ad copy or product description, and I think few consumers are fully aware of how this works. Further, although the idea is that these companies work toward increasing the percentage they use, I have not seen much evidence of this happening.

You can read more about these issues at the following posts (make sure to read the comments, the folks at RA are very good about providing their side of the story, to which I am grateful. I do have a lot of respect for them and the work they do, even if I don't agree with all their policies).

The Yuban ad campaign

Nespresso and sustainability

When is 100% not 100%?

Organic Coffee February 2, 2010 at 11:13 am

I think that some growers are not too concerned about these numbers, because they are not exhausting their land. Many of these growers only care about a quality product and are far less concerned with using up every square inch of their land. Granted, they are in the minimum, but it needs to be noted that not all farmers are negatively impacted by these lower yields.

Dave March 12, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I think that this stretches beyond organic coffee and to more of a cultural movement to sustainable living. There has been this same instance of whether the consumer is willing to spend up for what they socially believe in. In some cases you see it catching on, such as the hybrid car, and in other instances you don't see green products catching traction. Eventually demand will meet up with cost of production for certain products. It just may not be time for organic coffee yet…

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