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  • Writer's pictureSturbridge Coffee Roaster

Java Beat: Organic Coffee: with and without the label

This article originally published in The Sturbridge Times, February 2018

By Elvis Dyer, Owner/Roaster, Sturbridge Coffee Roasters

Have you ever noticed the tiny labels on the bags of coffee you buy? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets standards that must be met for a product to be labeled “organic” and carry a certified organic seal. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) sets regulations for organic agricultural products that are either produced in the U.S. or imported for sale in this country. In addition to setting requirements for how organic agricultural products are grown, processed and handled, the NOP also sets labeling requirements for these products. Labeling requirements are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product. If coffee is labeled “organic,” at least 95% of the beans must have been grown under organic conditions, and producers cannot use synthetic substances such as most pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. However, organic-certified coffees can be treated with pesticides; the pesticides used are organic (natural) vs. synthetic. Some research suggests that natural pesticides can be as toxic as synthetic ones and runoff from natural pesticides can also be just as harmful to water-based ecosystems.

How does the coffee you buy get certified as organic? Various non-profit organizations and for-profit companies offer inspection services. Inspectors visit farms to confirm the standards for organic certification are being followed. On the flip side, some critics do note that it can be hard for even a diligent inspector to ensure that no synthetics are ever used, based on a once-a-year inspection. By regulation, coffee cannot be labeled organic unless synthetics have not been applied to that plot for at least three years prior to the harvest that’s labeled as organic.

Are there Environment Standards? The organic standard’s purpose is to assure the customer that the product has no synthetic ingredients or additives, rather than showing that it was produced in an environmentally friendly way. In many cases, the two are certainly integrated. At one time, all farming was organic. Organic practices on coffee farms today reduces the amount of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer entering the ground, maintains partial forest canopy, and reduces erosion, among other things.

Are there Labor Standards? Again, the organic standard is not aimed at improving working conditions in the coffee-producing countries, however, it does help. Pesticides used on coffee farms really don’t make it to the consumer. What little residue isn’t removed in the processing of the coffee beans is burned off by roasting. However, the use of pesticides and herbicides is a health concern for workers.

Is my coffee organic even without the organic label (or vice versa)? There are costs involved, as with any of the third-party certification programs. Many small, family-owned coffee farms are organic by necessity. They can’t afford chemical pesticides and fertilizers anyway. Or many coffee farmers don’t need to use pest control tactics because their coffee is grown at high enough elevations, where pest problems aren’t an issue. Other farmers cannot afford to pay for inspections to achieve certification. What that means is that many of the coffees you are purchasing are organically grown but not certified due to the expensive cost of the certification process.

In addition, coffee is not eaten in its raw form. The bean is the seed of a fruit. The flesh of this fruit is discarded. Along the way, the seed is soaked, fermented, and subject to a thorough drying process. Non-organic coffee may not be 100% free of impurities, but because of the roasting process coffee beans undergo (roasting to high temperatures of anywhere between 350-450 degrees F, then being split apart), research shows that the vast majority of any pesticides are broken down by the high heat the beans are exposed to during roasting. This means that the levels of potentially harmful chemicals or toxins permitted by law in green, non-organic coffee are so low, if at all, by the time they come in contact with the end user.

In addition to certified organic, you may see additional labels including Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Shade-grown Certified, Bird Friendly, and Utz Kapeh or Utz Certified coffee. Each has either more specific standards, or overlapping standards in common with organic labels. However, as with other certifications, there are issues with expensive certification programs while also dealing with the costs of running a conventional farming program.

Does organic labeling impact the quality of the coffee? The quality of a coffee is determined by many factors, such as elevation, soil, harvest and processing technique, the roasting process, the freshness of the coffee, the quality of the water, and the cleanliness of the brewing equipment, for example. Organic isn’t necessarily synonymous with better coffee. The best coffee is one that’s produced with a dedication to quality first. In my opinion, the quality of the coffee is directly related to the amount of love the coffee bean receives – from the farm to the roaster to the staff who brew your cup. Your money may be better spent on other organic items instead of paying a premium for organic coffee.

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