Organic is a word that most of us instantly connect to better quality, more expensive, healthier produce, and usually produce which is more sustainable & better for the environment. In actual fact, all isn't quite what it seems with a lot of organic foods.
A scientific study from the University of British Columbia concluded that basically "it depends".
The benefit to the consumer vs the non-organic option depends on the country of origin, and when it comes to things like sustainability and impact on the environment, this is often a really complex situation, given the fact that there are pros and cons to organic farming vs. non-organic.
For example, the lack of chemicals in organic farming has to be a positive for the planet, right? Yes, but with some kinds of farming, a lot more land is required for organic farming vs non-organic, and given that land being converted into agricultural land is one of the leading causes of climate change and habitat loss, it's more complex than it may seem.
When it comes to coffee production, however, generally speaking, there are more pros than cons for organic coffee farming, for the consumer. The main reason for this is that as you'll know, coffee only grows in a specific strip across the globe known as the coffee belt, and, unfortunately, a lot of the coffee-producing regions are in developing countries.
While more developed countries tend to have stricter rules and regulations when it comes to the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, which can reduce the difference between the conventionally farmed produce and the certified organic produce coming from that same country, the use of chemicals in farming has often been used uncontrollably in some developing countries, meaning that there can sometimes be a big difference between conventional and organic coffee farming.
This is why coffee farms wishing to become certified as organic have to go through what's known as "conversion" a lengthy process intended to undo the negative impact of years of conventional farming with the use of pesticides, fungicides & chemical fertilizers.
In some coffee origins, the unrestrained use of chemicals in conventional coffee farming has made it a highly unsustainable process, and while pesticides probably don't cause much of an issue for consumers, they're a very real risk for farmworkers at origin, as this SCA article explains.
Are Organic Coffee Beans Better for Your Health?
We sell organic coffee beans, so you may expect me to jump on my soapbox and start exclaiming that of course coffee beans that have been grown organically are better for your health, but it's really not that simple, and it does depend on what you mean.
As the article I've just linked to, from the SCA explains, it's unlikely that there is any chemical residue left on coffee beans once the bean is removed from the fruit and dried, and even if there were, the chances of them still lingering after being roasted, are very slim.
Many people prefer organic produce because they don't like the idea of consuming chemical fertilizer, pesticides & fungicides - and of course, that's very unlikely to happen with coffee beans.
But, how does the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and so on, impact the quality of the compounds the coffee beans deliver into our cup?
Most people wouldn't consider coffee beans as having any nutritional benefit, but I think these people are forgetting what a coffee bean is. A coffee bean (isn't a bean but it looks like one) is the seed of the coffee plant, which we consume, ingesting a myriad of organic compounds.
We extract these compounds when we grind and brew our coffee, and we're talking about over a thousand natural chemical compounds, of which caffeine is only one, so coffee isn't just a drink that contains caffeine and tastes like "coffee".
Why do you think coffee does what it does to humans, do you think it's purely caffeine? If so, have you ever consumed caffeine via other forms, including tablet forms or energy drinks - and do you find you get the exact same experience from consuming caffeine in that way?
We clearly don't know enough about the plethora of compounds that the humble coffee bean delivers, and I'm certainly no scientist, but I know from my own experience that the effect of coffee in my system is unlike that of any other caffeinated beverage or substance.
So if, like me, you believe there is more to coffee than just caffeine - do you think that the seed of a coffee plant grown more naturally, in a more nurturing environment, is going to deliver the exact same quality compounds as the seeds of coffee plants grown in an environment where the natural goodness has been completely depleted through the use of chemicals over a prolonged period?
You can show me whatever scientific study you like, I'll still believe that mother nature is the best at knowing how stuff is supposed to grow and that the closer to nature we can get when it comes to producing the stuff we consume, the better. I do realise that even the best organic coffee farm is never going to recreate a 100% natural environment, as monocropping in and of itself isn't natural, but still, the closer we can get to nature, the better - as far as I'm concerned.
Are all Uncertified Organic Coffees Conventionally Grown?
No, actually. Organic certification is costly, producers have to pay all of the inspection costs and that includes all expenses of the auditors who travel to the farm to carry out the certification, so it's something that most independent small scale coffee farmers just can't afford, without being part of a coop so the costs can be shared.
But there are many small coffee farmers who are organic producers simply because for them organic production is more accessible, this is generally known as passive organic farming (as they're not certified as organic) and a fairly high percentage of Ethiopian smallholders farm in this way, you just wouldn't know it because their coffee can't be sold as organic as it hasn't been certified as such.
What Actually is Organic Coffee?
This is a good question, and it doesn't necessarily mean exactly what you might think it means. There are articles about this that state very simply that organic coffee is coffee that is grown organically, but actually, that's not quite right if we're talking about coffee that has been certified as organic.
As I've just mentioned, there is coffee that is grown organically and can't be sold as organic, so while organic coffee has to be grown organically, there's more to it than that.
Coffee beans that are sold as organic, have to be certified as such and to be organically certified means that the farm has to go through a "conversion" process, which takes at least three years, in which no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers can be used. In addition to this, an approved plan to organically manage the land has to be put in place and adhered to in order to retain the certification.
So certified organic coffee is coffee that is grown on a farm that has undergone the necessary initial steps in order to achieve certification, and that continues to fulfil all of the ongoing requirements, not limited to purely the lack of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
So Organic Coffee is Good, Then?
It's a complex subject, but in my humble opinion the more naturally anything we consume is grown, the better - and I believe that coffee farms which have gone through the conversion process so their produce can be organically certified, are better for the people who work on the farm, better for the local environment, better for the planet and better for all of us as a result.