What does “organic” really mean?

by on August 4, 2011

Some time ago, I provided posts on pesticides that are commonly used on coffee, and a brief overview of organic coffee. A recent NPR story, Organic pesticides, not an oxymoron, put the topic of the definition of “organic” (at least how it is defined and regulated in the U.S.) back in the news. I thought it would be appropriate to clarify this as it pertains to organic coffee.

First, all organic agricultural products sold in the U.S. are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. All of these products, whether produced in the U.S. or not, must adhere to NOP standards. The USDA accredits other agencies to certify organic products using the same standards.

The use of the USDA Organic seal indicates a product is at least 95% organic unless 100% organic is specified. However, because coffee is a single ingredient product, a bag of organic coffee is 100% organic beans.  Mixing of organic and non-organic forms of the same ingredient are expressly prohibited. If the coffee had flavoring or some form of secondary processing aid that was not organic, then it couldn’t be labeled 100% organic but that is an exception.

As the NPR piece points out, organic certification does not mean absolutely no chemicals are used in production. Organic certification excludes most manufactured pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. A list of substances that are allowed and prohibited are found in the Code of Federal Regulations. Examples of products that are allowed include soap-based herbicides and pesticides in certain circumstances, and botanically-based insecticides like neem and pyrethrum. It does not mean that any naturally-occurring toxin is okay to use or intrinsically safer just because it is natural. Plenty of natural toxins like arsenic or nicotine are prohibited. Allowable substances are on the list because they are typically less toxic in recommended doses than synthetics, more specific, and break down in the environment faster.

Many of these substances don’t apply to coffee, of course. Most relevant to coffee farming is that various copper- and sulfur-based products are allowed in some situations. This includes copper sulfate and hydrated lime (calcium oxide), the main ingredients in bordeaux mixture which is used as a fungicide, particularly against coffee rust. It is further specified in the rules that copper-based materials must be used in a manner that minimizes accumulation in the soil.

There are two very important stipulations on the use of allowed substances. One, the producer must demonstrate that natural biological or cultural methods are insufficient to control or remedy whatever problem is to be addressed by an allowed substance.  Only after these methods have proven unsuccessful can producers turn to the allowed substances. The organic standards include practices that should help reduce, minimize, or eliminate the need for pesticides and other agrochemicals — organic agriculture is a whole approach to ecosystem stewardship, not just the absence of artificial chemicals.

Second, the rules state that the use of allowed substances must “not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water.” I’ll also add that most of the allowed substances are only permitted to be used in specific situations or on particular crops (or non-food uses).

I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. I don’t believe the danger of non-organic coffee production is to the people that drink the end product. By the time the coffee cherries are removed from the trees, the beans inside processed, roasted, ground, and brewed, little or no chemical residue is likely to remain. The potential danger of non-organic coffee is harm to people and the environment at origin. Inproper storage, inadequate protection, and lack of training routinely expose farm workers to chemicals. Pesticides that are banned in the U.S. or Europe are still being used in many coffee-growing countries, especially older broad-spectrum insecticides which are highly toxic, but relatively inexpensive. Pesticides kill tens of thousands of migratory birds on their wintering grounds. Contamination and mortality of tropical resident wildlife is not well studied. And synthetic fertilizers, particularly nitrogen, not only have a large carbon footprint, but contribute to water contamination.

Organic certification is a commitment to sustainability. It deserves to be rewarded with our coffee-buying dollars.

As a result of researching posts I’ve written here, my thoughts on organic coffee have evolved. I have at times noted that many coffee farms may be considered “passive organic,” but are not certified, and that a lack of certification doesn’t mean the coffee is not sustainably grown. That may be true, but it is more nuanced than that. I’ve come to understand some farms may not use chemicals, but that doesn’t mean that they are following the principals that are encompassed in organic farming (practices that are codified and verified in organic certification standards).

Obtaining certification is a big accomplishment, especially for many farmers in the developing world where technical support and capital may be lacking. There are real barriers, including cost, and in sometimes lower yields.  It requires a lot of increased labor. Organic certification represents much more than not using chemicals — which are unlikely to show up in your coffee cup anyway. Organic certification is a commitment to sustainability. It deserves to be rewarded with our dollars.

Coffee bag photo by Chris and Jenni, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Revised on December 28, 2013

Posted in Certifications,Organic coffee

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