What is organic coffee?
In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sets standards that must be met for a product to be labeled "organic" and carry the seal shown at right. In the case of coffee, producers cannot use synthetic substances such as most pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. If coffee is labeled "organic," at least 95 percent of the beans must have been grown under organic conditions.
What are the environmental standards?
The organic standard is intended to assure the consumer that the product has no synthetic ingredients or additives, rather than showing that it was produced in an environmentally friendly way. However, the two are certainly compatible.
Obviously, at one time, all farming was organic. Following those traditional practices on coffee farms today reduces the amount of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer entering the ground, maintains partial forest canopy, reduces erosion, etc.
What are the labor standards?
Again, the organic standard is not aimed at improving working conditions in the coffee-producing countries, but it helps. 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.
But the use of pesticides and herbicides is a serious health concern for the workers, and one that's not an issue with organic coffee.
What's the downside?
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. But they also cannot afford to pay for inspections to achieve certification, and therefore can't earn the higher price for their beans.
Also, it's 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.
How does the coffee I 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.