One World Roasters' Coffee Blog
A Closer Look at Coffee's Organic Certification
The Good, The Bad, and Where We Stand on It—
“One World Roasters is an organic coffee roaster, right? You work exclusively with small organic farms and distributors that only use up-to-date best practices to minimize their impact—
So why aren’t you certified organic?”
Read on and we’ll get to the bottom of this!
Organic food is pretty amazing stuff — it’s what our bodies were designed eat and drink. It’s the good stuff we, in theory, don’t have to worry about.
Today, big brands and supermarkets can’t seem to slap a USDA Organic seal on their products quickly enough. But looking back 15-20 years ago, the perception of organic foods and products was very different.
NBC News noted all the way back in 2006 that better quality controls and regulations on the fringe food movement had transformed the niche movement into a booming $14 billion international industry. Organic was no longer just for weirdo tree-huggers; it was for everyone and a certain certification had a lot to do with bringing on that shift (for the record, we are, and love weirdo tree-huggers!).
There is obvious good to this change — this means healthier, often better quality food available to more people more affordably than ever before, but there’s more to the story and we want to share the full tale with you in this month’s blog. We’ll also look into where we and many of our peers in the organic small coffee businesses fit into the bigger picture of organic certifications.
But first, let’s understand what people really mean when they use the word “organic” and what the USDA certification entails.
Clarifying Organic Terminology
When we think of a food or beverage as being “organic,” we generally understand it as being free of chemicals and unnatural stuff. The actual certification standard is a little more thorough though.
Where food and beverages are concerned "organic" means:
• No harmful chemicals, pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers were used in the cultivation of the food
• Only very specific water purification and waste disposal processes were used in the farming
• All farms and facilities the coffees travel through in their supply chain are regularly examined by certified USDA inspectors
• All exporters, importers, and roasting facilities coffees pass through are also audited and required to be certified organic. Nothing ever used in conventional processes is allowed to touch any of the organic items.
To learn more about these specifics visit the USDA website.
What organic does NOT cover
USDA requirements cover plenty of good ground, but there’s a lot they do not account for. As you may have learned for yourself from a less-than-stellar-tasting cup of organic coffee, “certified organic” does not guarantee better quality or taste; it just means the things we outlined above.
And there’s a lot more that the organic certification doesn’t cover:
• Best practices for ideal taste – Organic doesn’t mean that the farmers used or were trained in growing methods that produce best-tasting end results, including many lower-yield, more time-intensive practices like shade-growing or high altitude farming that promote biodiversity, require less pesticide use, and bring out the best flavors in coffees.
• Fair Trade – Organic ≠ Fair Trade and Fair Trade ≠ organic. Farms and big brands that carry the organic seal have no obligation to treat their farmers any better, compensate them more fairly, or teach them better practices than their non-organic peers (unless they are also Fair Trade-certified). With that said, OWR coffees are always organically grown and roasted and fair trade-certified.
• Lower in pesticides – “Huh? I thought organic means no pesticides?” Not exactly. Farmers still need to protect their crops from insects, mites, weeds, and funguses and use safer, lower impact organic pesticides like beneficial insects, spiders, microbial pesticides, and other plants and fungi. Since many of these methods are less effective than conventional pesticides, they are often used in higher concentrations, yielding coffees that can still be highly compromised.
• Local – Organic ≠ local and local ≠ organic. As with fair trade, people tend to associate local with organic and this often doesn’t hold true. Coffee requires very specific conditions to grow properly, so it’s rare for the beans not be imported from coffee-growing regions. In a mindful coffee business, our goal is more to minimize unnecessary steps in the supply chain.
Many blended coffees big brands import are grown in coffee growing regions, roasted in Europe, and then sold in the U.S. making for a serious carbon footprint.
• Sustainable/Low-Impact — As we’ll discuss below, organic is a finite resource and to stay competitive with global demand, big brands often deplete natural resources and deforest thriving ecosystems.
• Good for biodiversity – An organic seal does not guarantee that organic farmers are not shoving a great number of birds and mammals out of their turf in favor of expanded farmland.
• Grown in small lots – Organic at its core is a patient, small-scale operation where quality and responsibility supposedly trump quantity. It’s difficult to adhere to this standard, however, when corporate investors need to continue seeing financial gains.
• Helpful to small farms, growers, and businesses – In a perfect world this would be the case, but, in practice, the organic certification amounts to a big help for industry giants like Walmart and a barrier to little guys like us. We’ll detail the reasons in the second-to-last section below.
Is “Certified Organic” in line with the spirit of organic farming?
Well, yes … and no. As we mentioned above, the higher standards the USDA has enforced for their certifications have undoubtedly improved the overall quality of organic offerings for the consumer, and the reduction in dangerous chemical pesticides that have resulted from these regulations is good for nearly everyone involved.
So what’s the problem?
As you can see from the list in the last section, there are a number of important ecological and ethical concerns that the USDA certification misses. And these are important concerns like sustainability and environmental consciousness that get to the root of why mindful consumers have pushed for more organic offerings in the first place.
Food journalist Erin Meister points out in a recent Chowhound article, that when we pay a premium for organic foods, we are not necessarily paying for something to taste better, but a certain assurance it gives us. “What you paying for, however, is the peace of mind that you’re doing right not only by Mother Earth, but also by the farmers and farm laborers.”
There is a sense of compassion built into the purchase of organic foods. But what if that peace of mind we think we’re getting in many ways isn’t there? The case of Stonyfield organic yogurt is a good example of this.
“With its contented cow and green fields, the yellow container evokes a bucolic existence, telegraphing what we've come to expect from organic food: pure, pesticide-free, locally produced ingredients grown on a small family farm,” says Diane Brady of Bloomberg Businessweek.
“So it may come as a surprise that Stonyfield's organic farm is long gone," she says. "Its main facility is a state-of-the-art industrial plant just off the airport strip in Londonderry, N.H., where it handles milk from other farms. And consider this: Sometime soon a portion of the milk used to make that organic yogurt may be taken from a chemical-free cow in New Zealand, powdered, and then shipped to the U.S."
This conflict of ideals is present in many sectors of the organic marketplace. In short, organic industry has reached an existential crisis — to stay true to its core principles and stay small, or capitalize on big market demand offering lesser versions of itself to trusting consumers. It’s a difficult balance to maintain because greater availability of organic foods is mostly a good thing, but it becomes a much better thing if we are willing to step away from the big international brands we know and find what we’re looking for in local farms and businesses.
Unfortunately, the USDA has made it very clear that their organic certification favors the big brands over the little guys — so many of whom far more closely embody the ideals of the organic spirit.
How does the organic certification system affect small specialty coffee roasters?
As a small independent roaster dealing exclusively with organically-grown coffees from small organic farms and co-ops, we have to be smart about how and where we use our resources.
The right to label oneself organic is a costly and resource-intensive burden for many small coffee businesses like and other local vendors of organic products. It can often amount to:
• Thousands of dollars of recurring annual fees that little guys like us often cannot afford to pay without serious consideration. (CT does not currently subsidize these certification expenses)
• Need for duplicate pieces of costly equipment for roasters that carry both organic and non-organic coffees (no machine that processes non-organic coffees can ever touch organic beans even if thoroughly cleaned).
• Requires a high industry-level of control over how small organic farms distribute their beans to us which is very difficult to do without the reach and influence of a big brand.
“To get the best quality ingredients or pay to have a label that speaks to an incomplete assurance of quality?”
This is a difficult decision for the indie organic brand, and when we’ve been given that decision, up to this point we’ve always chosen getting the best organic coffees and most environmentally mindful equipment over the best certifications.
And small coffee roasters are but one link in a chain that struggles to keep up with the certification game— the same goes for many small organic coffee farms across the world who cannot afford to cut into their operational budgets to pay their way into the big business certification game. These are farms that embody the core of what organic is — small, independent, and low-impact, but they're up against a system that favors the bigger fish.
The Stop & Shops, Walmarts, and Targets around us are the real winners in the in USDA’s organic certification game and the $50 billion business it accounts for in the U.S. alone (as of 2018). Furthermore, as the infographic below illustrates, 75% of U.S. families surveyed expressed that they highly trusted the USDA Organic seal. This would be a huge help to smaller brands if the seal were more accessible to them.
For coffee – it's in the sourcing, not the certification
So if the organic certification leaves many holes in what matters in an organic purchase, how do you shop for organic coffees that you can really feel good about?
The keys are looking local and demanding transparency!
• Where does the roaster get their beans? Are they open and willing to show you where they got each of their organic coffees and how they got to their facility?
• Do they have any direct trade relationships that cut down on wasteful transportation emissions?
• Do they have any micro-lot coffees?
• Do they buy low impact bird-friendly/shade grown and/or high altitude beans?
• Are their coffees fair trade?
• How do they roast their beans? Do they use low carbon emission methods like infrared roasting as we do at OWR?
Every coffee is different and needs to be examined for its adherence to organic principles, a low carbon footprint, sustainability, and overall quality.
One World Roasters imports its coffees exclusively through green specialty coffee importers: Royal Coffee New York, Olam, and Atlas — all of which handle and import both conventional and organic coffees. All coffees we purchase come with certificates of organic and fair trade authenticity.
For these reasons, we are always happy to talk transparency with our customers and give them the full story of how any of our premium organic & fair trade coffees got to us and were meticulously prepared. Have a question on one of them? Ask us here!
We want your experience with organic coffee to be the most delicious, mindful, and meaningful it can possibly be. Whether we pursue a certification in the future or not, our goal remains the same — to conduct our coffee business, sourcing, and roasting in closest adherence of the spirit of organic.
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One World Roasters
967 North High St,
East Haven CT 06512