• Growing organic coffee


    Growing any organic product, including organic coffee, is more than just leaving out fertilizers and other agro-chemicals. Coffee produced in this way should instead be called 'natural' coffee and, to the surprise of many, the industry looks upon this as non-sustainable production. This is because, in the long run, the soil will be depleted by natural production, which is often referred to also as 'passive cultivation' or 'organic by default'.

    To achieve sustainable production it is necessary to make active use of various organic agriculture techniques including the composting of organic material, mulching of the soil under the trees with organic material, use of biological pest control, and investing in shade regulation. The principle of sustainable agriculture is that a value corresponding to that harvested should be returned to the soil. All possible methods have to be used to enhance the fertility of the soil. This is why passive production of coffee, even when no chemicals are used, is viewed as non-sustainable and not as organic.

    According to European Union regulations these standards must be followed:

    • Cultivation of legumes, green manures, or deep-rooting plants in an appropriate multi-annual rotation programme.
    • Incorporation in the soil of organic material, organic livestock manure and vermicompost.
    • Pests, diseases and weeds to be controlled by using appropriate varieties, rotation programmes, biological pest control, mechanical practices and flame weeding.
    • Seeds and propagation materials organically produced.
    • Use of non-organic fertilizers, pesticides and biological pest control methods is limited.

    (Minimum standards according to and adapted from EU-2092/91. See Annex II of EU-2092/91 for further specifications of approved inputs: www.europa.eu)

    CERTIMEX, a leading organic certifying organization from Mexico, has formulated standards specifically for coffee.

    • Biodiversity should be promoted; therefore cultivation must be done under diversified shade.
    • Varieties should be adapted to the local climate and be resistant to local plagues and diseases.
    • Nurseries should be organic and seeds should come from organic coffee fields.
    • Coffee bushes may not be planted too densely.
    • Erosion should be controlled by: mulching and growing of soil covers; planting on contours and/or terraces; shade trees with a lot of foliage leaf; and construction of barriers.
    • Techniques to promote organic content of the soil should be used: growing of legumes, incorporation of organic fertilizers and other organic material such as leaves and branches of shade trees.
    • Corrections of pH-value with permitted inputs, e.g. lime, is allowed.
    • Coffee pulp is recycled.
    • Processing is done only with mechanical and physical means; attention should be given to reduction of energy use and cleaning of water that has been used to wash the coffee.

    (Adapted from CERTIMEX: Normas para la producción de café orgánico/01.2001.)

    Usually, a producer may simultaneously grow both conventional and organic coffee, although this is not recommended. There must be a clear separation between the two types and adequate barriers to prevent contamination with agro-chemicals from neighbouring fields.

    Coffee may normally be sold as organic only once organic cultivation has been practised for at least three years before the first marketable harvest. This also means three years of inspection. These years are called the conversion period. 

    In specific cases, depending on previous agricultural practices, this conversion period may be reduced, but only after approval of the certifying organization, which in turn has to report such a decision to the authority granting the import permit in the European Union Member State concerned. For a producer who can prove that no agro-chemicals have been used in the past, it is important to try to reduce the conversion period. If a producer can document that no agro-chemicals have recently been used, it is certainly worthwhile discussing the possibility with the certifier.

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