• What is organic coffee and why grow it and why buy it?


    Organic coffee is grown as part of an intensive, holistic agricultural production management system that includes the composting of organic materials, mulching, shade regulation and biological pest control. Such a system is based on the principle that a value corresponding to that harvested should be returned to the soil. It excludes the use of agro-chemicals. For the product to be marketed as organic, it must be certified as such by a third party. Variants on this basic theme, such as shade grown, are discussed in 03.05.01.
    Western countries have developed extensive legislation for organic products. The conditions that must be met before coffee may be marketed as organic are both comprehensive and well defined. No coffee may be brought to the marketplace and labelled organic unless it is proved to conform to the regulations. In other words, coffee can be marketed as organic only when it is certified as such by a recognized organization or certifier, based on regular inspection of all stages of production, processing, transporting and roasting of the coffee.

    The first organic coffee cultivation was recorded at the Finca Irlanda in Chiapas, Mexico (1967), and the first organic coffee to be imported into Europe from a small farmers' cooperative came from the UCIRI cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico (1985). The cooperative converted and marketed its coffee with the help of a joint venture formed by a Netherlands commercial roaster, Simon Lévelt/Haarlem, and GEPA (Gesellschaft für Partnerschaft mit der Dritten Welt), a German NGO (non-governmental organization) specializing in alternative trade.

    Why do consumers choose organic coffee? 

    • Health considerations. Many consumers are increasingly concerned with the content of their daily intake of food and beverages: organic foods are perceived as healthier. This motive is less important for coffee than it is for some other crops in that roasted coffee hardly ever contains harmful residues. But there is also a growing body of consumers whose health worries extend to the workers who have to work with the chemicals that are used in the traditional production system.
    • Demand for specialty coffee. This is growing and organic coffees are perceived as belonging to this category. Although the quality of organic coffee is not necessarily better than that of conventional coffees, the market for organic coffee is increasingly demanding higher quality, which is why organic coffees are often positioned in the specialty segment. The first organic coffees to appear on the market in the 1980s were good quality arabicas from Mexico, but nowadays lower grades of organic arabica as well as organic robusta are also available. Some quality estates or exporters have their coffees certified as organic to underline their quality, hoping it will be perceived as truly special.
    • Environmental concerns. Other consumers are concerned about the negative impact of agro-chemicals on the environment. They are not necessarily concerned only about health issues but primarily want to be sure that the products they buy are produced in an environmentally friendly way in order to prevent pollution, erosion and soil degradation.

    Why produce organic coffee?

    In principle producers are motivated by the same concerns as consumers, but in addition they want to secure their social and cultural future by realizing the premium that certified organic coffee obtains. This benefit depends on the demand for organic coffee, which in turn determines the amount of the premium that can be obtained, and the extra costs involved in organic production. See 03.02.04 for more on this.

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