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

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Dominick August 8, 2011 at 2:58 pm

This is a very concise look into the differences of organic and conventional farming practices. Thanks for posting it. Organic certification is entirely about creating and following a system plan, logging input applications and maintaining data on the substances used for pest management. An organic lifestyle/philosophy is something that some certified farmers adopt, however pursuit of organic certification is not an assurance that a farmer has made the philosophical leap. By far and away the best farms (coffee or otherwise) I have visited are run by people who have embraced the lifestyle fully and are not simply following the almighty dollar or doing it out of peer-pressure obligations from neighbors or cooperative leaders.

I agree that the largest threats posed by conventional pesticide and herbicide use related to coffee is limited to the watershed, wildlife and applicator not the consumer. I would also say that the potential exists for a well-run conventional farm to have a smaller environmental impact than a poorly run organic farm.

A few issues of concern surrounding organic certification for coffee farmers (or any product raised in tropical forest areas) arise. The primary one deals with habitat conservation and land history. The notion that certification of existing farms with a conventional farming past takes 3 years of transition whereas if a farmer clears virgin forest for coffee the land can be certified from day one is particularly bothersome. There are vast tracts of newly certified and planted parcels in Latin America (Peru in particular) where a virgin or second-growth forest stood two years ago. Deforestation for agriculture often involves slash and burn practices and in the most egregious situations farmers will attempt a zero-input scenario and leave the coffee behind when it becomes unproductive only to start over with a freshly cleared land. Watersheds are irreparably damaged and entire hillsides are left eroded to bedrock.

I don’t dispute the need for a 3 year transition, however there needs to be a mechanism to dissuade the destruction of forests rather than give an incentive for the behavior.

The second concern is the lack of long-term agronomic support for organic producers. The early 00′s saw a huge push from USAID among other NGO’s towards converting farmers to organic. Initial fees were paid with grant money, system plan help was given and support along with soil inputs at reduced or no cost. As grants dried up and projects moved on, there was not much technical support for farmers and it became harder to source inputs without subsidized pricing. Organic yields can only be sustained if a producer is given the knowledge and access to the materials to maintain the soils.

My last concern is inputs and their source. If managed properly, an organic farm can eventually become a closed or nearly closed system. I truly believe this style of organic farming really requires a farmer to adopt an holistic organic philosophy. Inputs can be developed internally or at worst sourced on a regional basis in an effort to create a sustainable scenario.

In poorly managed organic systems, massive external inputs are required on a regular basis to maintain baseline levels of nutrients in soils. This is both expensive and unsustainable, also when soil health is in decline plants tend to be more susceptible to disease and pests. Systems like this have poor production values and become easy fodder for people who believe organic is intrinsically a lower yield scenario.

I think if we are asking consumers to reward organic coffee with their dollars we need to work hard to educate ourselves and our peers on the nuances and details of organic agriculture and in doing so avoid the temptation to simply point to a USDA Organic seal as evidence that the coffee is automatically superior. As green coffee buyers we have a responsibility to push importers, cooperatives or producers towards truly sustainable organic production, not just the execution of a system plan that is inspected on an annual basis.


JACraves August 8, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Tim, thanks for this excellent comment. I agree that the lack of a land-clearing prohibition is just stupid. Rainforest Alliance has provisions that do not allow destroying natural or high value ecosystems prior to certification, as does UTZ Certified; neither requires organic certification, however. Organic certification is a prerequisite for Smithsonian Bird-Friendly certification. That seal does not have any land-clearing prohibitions, but the criteria for shade and vegetation are such that it would be nearly impossible to clear out forest and then get certified in a short period of time, I think. Perhaps this is a topic of an entire post.

Thanks again for commenting.


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