Sustainable coffee is produced on a farm with high biological diversity and low chemical inputs. It conserves resources, protects the environment, produces efficiently, competes commercially, and enhances the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
                                                      -- Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, First Sustainable Coffee Congress.

The Power of Organic Coffee

by JulieCraves on December 8, 2016

logo-scaa-chronicleThis article appeared at the SCAA Chronicle, the member publication of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.


Of all the certifications and labeling schemes that appear on consumable products, “organic” is probably the most familiar, and perhaps the most intuitively appealing. But even as demand grows, there is also a growing awareness that our perception of the purity of organic agriculture or understanding of organic certification may not completely align with reality, and that organic agriculture, even in compliance with certification standards, is not a panacea. But is it worth it?

As an ecologist, I believe that the most serious peril of non-organic coffee is harm to people and the environment at origin. And I believe that the coffee industry—supplier of a globally ubiquitous product grown by millions of people around the world—has a very special and central role in the promotion and evolution of the organic movement.

Let’s talk about some of the perceived shortcomings of organic food products which have particular relevance to coffee. The first is that organic produce is generally not more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. Coffee is not consumed for its nutritional benefits, so this is unlikely to influence coffee buying one way or another.

Pesticide residue on foods is a major concern to consumers, but some recent work has determined that organic foods may not be any safer than conventional foods. This is true for coffee, where little or no chemical residue is likely to remain once the beans are removed from the fruit (the part exposed to pesticides), dried and hulled, roasted at very high temperatures, ground, then brewed in water.

Finally, “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean “high quality.” Organic coffee is often grown under a canopy of shade, and shade-grown coffee tends to ripen more slowly. Slower growth may intensify flavors, resulting in a better-tasting cup. This subtlety may not be discernable by the average consumer, and of course any coffee, carelessly harvested or processed, can result in a lousy cup.

If organic coffee is not healthier and doesn’t taste better than conventionally grown coffee, why should buyers favor it, especially given its higher price?

What is at stake?

Pesticides that are banned or highly restricted in the U.S. or Europe are still being used in many coffee-growing countries, including some that are highly toxic. Even illegal pesticides are still obtainable and being applied. Improper storage, inadequate personal protection, and lack of training for handlers of pesticides are not uncommon in the developing world, and result in farm workers being directly exposed to toxins.

Even if these toxins aren’t lethal, the effects on non-target organisms (including humans) may consist of reproductive impairment, weakened immune systems, abnormal hormonal function, cancers, genetic mutations, altered foraging and predator-avoidance behavior, faulty thermoregulation, and/or neurological effects. Use of herbicides also eliminates larval and pollinator host plants, transforming the base of food chains. These effects can occur even when chemicals are administered correctly, and are exacerbated when mis- or over-applied.

What I find most frightening is that there is no testing to determine what happens when multiple products are used concurrently or sequentially, or what happens when they combine with other chemicals (synthetic and natural) in the environment or in organisms. We don’t know how different climates or soils influence these interactions, or their long-term consequences. The number of potential combinations of substances, circumstances, and settings is mind-boggling, yet these synergies and their impacts on ecological and human health are essentially unknown!

According to the World of Organic Agriculture 2016 report, coffee is the world’s largest single organic crop. While comprising only two percent of all organic cropland, it covers over 20 percent of organic permanent cropland, and over half of the permanent cropland in Latin America, where the majority of organic coffee is grown. Moreover, coffee is grown in the tropics—home to some of the world’s most biodiverse areas and complex ecosystems.

Organic economics

Coffee farmers are largely motivated by economics. Organic agriculture often incurs substantial costs. Hand weeding, pruning of shade trees, and implementation of integrated pest management adds additional labor costs. Particularly daunting is the production or acquisition of large volumes of organic compost for fertilizer; synthetic fertilizers are not allowed due to high fossil fuel use in their manufacture and their limited use in promoting healthy soil. If a farm has a wet mill, the waste pulp can be used for fertilizer, but it will not be enough to meet the heavy feeding demands of coffee, so additional sources will need to be located. The hurdle of securing adequate organic fertilizer often contributes to yields for organic coffee growers that are lower than the inflated yields of high-input coffee—by over 30 percent in some cases.

Certification fees also play a role. Organic practices are verified by annual inspections, and producers pay, at some level, for certification, including accommodating inspectors and paying for their travel. These expenses, combined with lower yields and increased labor costs, are often not sufficiently offset by the price premiums paid for organic coffee, which are typically around 20 to 25 percent. This can make organic production unappealing to farmers. And since one of the requirements for organic certification is segregation from conventional coffee throughout the supply chain, there are financial burdens for importers, roasters, and other players in the supply chain as well. A portion of all these costs are of necessity passed on to consumers.

I don’t want to minimize the benefits of some agricultural chemicals, or oversimplify the complexities in growing coffee in environmentally or economically sustainable ways. But for decades we’ve been taking a risky gamble with our environment. Other coffee certifications have various restrictions on pesticide use, but only organic (and Smithsonian Bird-Friendly, for which organic certification is a prerequisite) prohibits most of them. There’s no denying that chemicals which are allowed under organic certification may be just as toxic as those that are not, but under organic rules their use is restricted to specific situations.

Many uncertified coffee farms may be considered “passive organic,” because they forego some or all chemical use due to expense or ideology. But unless they are certified, there is no way of knowing if, when, or how they use chemicals, or if they are following the many other essential environmentally-friendly practices that are mandated in organic certification standards. These encompass soil and water quality and conservation measures, and maintaining or enhancing biological resources, including supporting biodiversity.

Obtaining organic certification and fully embracing its philosophy is an enormous accomplishment, especially for farmers in developing countries where resources, technical support, and capital may be lacking. While many organic farms were or are helped by initial grants or other funding, some will require continued effort to preserve and advance organic practices. The coffee industry is in the position to aid in these activities by providing expertise, facilitating partnerships, and encouraging innovation. Larger industry players could help finance initiatives outright, and all front-line coffee providers have an opportunity to engage and educate the public on the importance of organic coffee, the challenges it presents to farmers, and the role of higher premiums in fostering and stabilizing organic production—indeed, helping it to prosper. Organic certification is a commitment to sustainability that deserves to be rewarded with our dollars.

Revised on June 17, 2018

Posted in Certifications,Organic coffee

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Resources for new readers

by JulieCraves on November 29, 2016

I’d like to welcome new readers to Coffee & Conservation. I am an ornithologist and coffee lover, and I believe that the simple choice of the coffee we choose to buy has the power to help conserve birds, the ecosystems that sustain them, and provide a stable, comfortable income for farmers. It’s wonderful to have an opportunity to reach audiences, especially those coming from Michigan Blue Magazine and the American Birding Association.

mi-blue-logoI was interviewed for the winter 2016 issue of Michigan Blue for the article “Is coffee for the birds?” (pdf) which covered shade-grown coffee and the connection to birds, and the genesis of Coffee & Conservation. If you are here because the article piqued your curiosity, I hope that reading through this site will introduce you to the issues behind your morning cup and how important it is to purchase sustainably-grown coffee.

aba-logoThe American Birding Association is re-launching their Song Bird Coffee line which will now be certified Smithsonian Bird-Friendly. I believe that birders can be especially influential in supporting and advocating for sustainable coffee. I have found many birders are reluctant to change their coffee-buying habits; I hope the information on this site will make a case for change.

Where to begin? Quick ways to find more information include the User Guide tab at the top of the page, the Featured Content links at the upper left, and the search box at the top right.  Listed below are links of particular interest to get you started.

How is coffee grown, and why is it important to birds and other biodiversity?

What do all the certifications mean?

Why should I pay more for certified or environmentally-friendly coffee?

Where can I get environmentally-friendly coffee?

Revised on September 12, 2018

Posted in Background information

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Elfin-woods Warbler. Photo by Mike Morel/USFWS under a Creative Commons license.

Elfin-woods Warbler. Photos by Mike Morel/USFWS under a Creative Commons license.

It has been awhile since I have posted an entry in the Know Your Coffee Bird series, which profiles birds that utilize shade coffee farms. This post is about a species that was not on my short list for an upcoming account, but has a very special, recently defined connection to coffee.

The Elfin-woods Warbler (Setophaga angelae) is one of over 100 species of warblers found in the New World, and is only found in Puerto Rico. Discovered and described less than 50 years ago, it is named for a unique habitat it favors — elfin woods. High humidity and rainfall, strong winds, and nutrient-poor soils result in the short, often twisted trees (dominated by only a few species) that are characteristic of these forests, found between 750-850 meters. More recently, the warbler has also adapted to lower wet forests at 600-900 meters. This bird may have eluded discovery for so long due to being very similar in appearance to another species I have profiled as a coffee bird, the Black-and-white Warbler, which nests in North America but winters in Puerto Rico.

The Elfin-woods Warbler was likely always rare, and it was proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act in 1982. Habitat loss and degradation due to development, agriculture, and hurricanes are among the factors that drove population declines in the following decades. The current estimate is fewer than 2000 individuals in two populations: in the El Yunque National Forest in the eastern part of the island, and in Maricao Commonwealth Forest and adjacent private lands in the west. Part of the latter is an Important Bird Area designated by BirdLife International.

Earlier this month, after years of languishing as a candidate, the warbler was finally designated as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Elfin-woods Warbler. Photos by Mike Morel/USFWS under a Creative Commons license.

Elfin-woods Warbler. Photos by Mike Morel/USFWS under a Creative Commons license.

When a species is afforded protected status under the Act, “critical habitat” is designated. These are areas that are essential to conservation and which may require special management efforts. Critical habitat for the Elfin-woods Warbler is largely public land, but does contain private holdings including coffee farms and potential coffee-growing land adjacent to the Maricao Commonwealth Forest. The warblers have been detected in shade coffee plantations, but not in sun coffee farms. Thus, in the critical habitat areas, conversion of shade coffee to sun coffee will be prohibited. Conversely, the planting of shade trees on sun coffee farms is encouraged. Provisions for coffee growers in this area also allow for pruning of shade and coffee trees, but only outside of the nesting season. Herbicides and pesticides may be used, but only during the first two years or so while the coffee and shade trees are becoming established (a time in which the warblers are not likely to use the farm).

Previous research has indicated that much of Puerto Rico’s coffee is not grown under shade, but that farmers are willing to convert to shade if they were encouraged to do so by incentives such as being supplied with shade trees to plant.  Since 2010, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been working on habitat restoration initiatives in the Maricao coffee growing area through the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. This has included technical and financial assistance to landowners to establish and restore shade coffee.  The listing of the Elfin-woods Warbler will likely provide more incentive and opportunity for farmers to create and enhance shade coffee, to the benefit of this interesting bird and other biodiversity associated with its habitats.

Read more:


Revised on October 4, 2017

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Know Your Coffee Birds series

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Nestlé has released their 2015 Creating Shared Value report. The Swiss multinational is one of the largest food companies in the world and produces one of the most correspondingly voluminous CSR reports. I delved into the 2013 report in some detail, and you can refer to that post for context. Here, I will just highlight the most salient reports regarding coffee.

  • Nestlé continues to purchase about 10% of the world’s coffee production. In 2014, those purchases totalled 842,000 metric tons, in 2015 it was 849,000 tons. I track these figures in the table at Corporate coffee: How much is eco-certified?.
  • Of those 849,000 tons, only 56% is traceable back to a farm or plantation (p.115). The company defines that traceability as 4C Verified — compliant with the most rudimentary, baseline standards in the industry. Or to put it another way, over 373,000* tons is NOT traceable to source and may not even meet the most basic standards of ethical human and environmental decency.
  • More astonishing, Nestlé sources about a quarter of their coffee (225,600 tons) directly from 760,000 farmers (p. 100) via their Farmer Connect program (p.117) of which 85% is 4C compliant. That means 15% of their direct-sourced coffee — from known producers they are working with — is not even 4C Verified.
  • 85% of the approximately 55,000 tons of coffee used for Nespresso’s permanent Grand Cru coffee pod selections is sourced under their Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality program (p. 119), about the same percentage as the past 3 years. This is their proprietary program based on Rainforest Alliance standards. Read more here.
  • There is no mention of the volume of organic or other eco-certified coffee purchases. Nestlé doesn’t place value in third-party certification for coffee (see statement below).


At 351 pages, there is much more material in the report, which you can download at their website.

*56% of 849,000 tons = 475,440, although later (p. 118) in the report they say that 482,054 tons represents 56%. The latter would mean they purchased 860,811 tons of coffee, so I used the former figures, as they are given several times in the report.

Posted in Corporate coffee,Nestlé’/Nespresso

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