Your friendly reminder that “organic” doesn’t always mean “sustainable”

organic coffee
Credit: Photo by Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

If you're looking to drink sustainably sourced coffee, you might be looking for an organic label. But what is organic coffee, exactly, and what is the difference between organic and conventional coffee? As Byron Holcomb, the director of agribusiness at Nobletree Coffee, explained to me on the phone from the company's farm in Brazil, “It depends on how in-depth you want to get. But just starting from 30,000 feet, as we say sometimes, it’s basically the production of coffee without using any type of agrochemical. So no chemical fertilizer and no pesticides.”

And though that definition makes the process of making certified organic coffee seem extremely simple, actually getting certified as organic by one of the major markets for organic products, including the United States and Europe, is no small feat. The first step is a three-year transition period. “So you’re producing organically, without using any chemicals, for three years before you can actually obtain that certification,” Holcomb says.

But even three years of production without any agrochemicals or pesticides isn’t enough to be certified organic. Under these rules, the entire supply chain, from growing to shipping even roasting, must be certified as organic. Simply forgetting to put the word organic on the correct invoice is a big enough mistake to revoke a company’s certification. “So it’s not just the fact that it came from our farm, but it actually states properly on the invoices that it is organic and that it is coming from our farm,” to ensure traceability, Holcomb says.

So is organic coffee worth the trouble? After all, unlike berries or peaches, which are sprayed with pesticides and then sent directly to the consumer for consumption, the actual coffee bean is protected by a thick skin. “So the chance of the consumer actually getting affected by the agrochemical in coffee is—I don’t want to say zero, because there’s always a chance for something—but it’s incredibly unlikely,” Holcomb says, “in part because this coffee is roasted at 400°F, and any of these chemicals that were in there would’ve been vaporized in the roasting process anyway, if there were any that were to get to you.”

Organic certification doesn't guarantee that the company is financially, socially, or otherwise environmentally sustainable, either. Nobletree Coffee owns and operates two farms in Brazil where they grow coffee. “We use agrochemicals, we use pesticides when necessary, we use fertilizer when necessary," Holcomb says. Part of that is practical. You need to apply two to three pounds of organic fertilizer—generally a mix of composted organic materials—to each tree in order to get the same benefits as three ounces of a conventional fertilizer. "So it’s a much more concentrated dose, but that also means I might buy two truckloads of fertilizer as opposed to forty,” saving the farm labor costs and minimizing its carbon footprint. Your organic coffee might be grown without agrochemicals, but that label says nothing about the other production practices.

Holcomb is also quick to note that not all fertilizers are made equally, and that it's possible to use these fertilizers in a way that won't harm the plants or the workers. They make sure that that anyone who’s applying the chemicals has been trained and wears protective gear. "We even have blood tests to make sure there are no levels that are going to affect their health long-term,” he says.

Long story short? You can't rely on the organic label to ensure your coffee is sustainably produced. The subtle differences in production are why the best advice that Holcomb can give coffee drinkers looking to brew sustainably sourced beans is simple: Know your roasters. Most consumers might not get a chance to meet their actual coffee farmers since they’re too far away, “but if they can get to know the roasters and know some of the roasters’ core values and maybe some of their buying practices and how they manage coffee, that’s really the best way you can do it,” Holcomb says. “Because those values carry all the way through the chain,” and straight into your morning cup of coffee.