Organic coffee has been around ever since coffee was first grown, growing wild and since the first commercial farms were created, but by default not design.
However, the history of certified organic coffee starts in 1990. The Organic Foods Production Act was passed in the United States, prompting other countries to follow suit and the brand and the marketing was born.
Many factors are taken into consideration when coffee is considered organic. For example, the coffee farm's fertiliser must be 100% organic so if manufactured fertilisers such as synthetic nitrogen, phosphate, and potash are used, then the crop grown cannot be certified organic. There has to be an audit trail that these non organic materials have not been used over a 4 year period and regular inspections and audits completed.
Most speciality coffee farms are by default organic. Farmers often live on the land that they grow the coffee and do not wish to put chemicals into the ground of their homes. In come countries, like Ethiopia, non-organic fertilisers are in the most banned and the few that are available very expensive when available making their use prohibitive for small holders.
The cost of registering organic is quite often a barrier for most small producers making it difficult to become certified. There are some exceptions, in Peru in the 90's there was a huge push by USAID (the US aid organisation) to help small holders become certified which has made it the biggest single exporter of certified organic coffee. As of 2010 over 423,000 69kg bags were exported.
So why doesn't 3fe sell organic coffee. The practices that are necessary for growing high-quality coffee, compared with commodity-grade coffee where the ultimate goal is high yield are quite different. Speciality requires care and attention to produce quality in the cup. Over producing a coffee tree will ultimately make the cup quality worse, over fertilising and over feeding will end up in a coffee decreasing in its quality. Commodity coffee is all about ever-increasing the yield of the plant regardless of the effect on the final cup quality. Many of our growing partners are following organic practices whilst not being certified because either the barrier of costs, or that their customers do not require or use the organic branding on the coffee. It still remains on most countries those who are certified organic are either big farms, or the certification is paid for by a third party.
Theres also a need for the whole supply chain from import to export and everything in-between to be certified including the roastery. This involves a yearly inspection along with an ongoing daily audit and tracking of the organic coffee and processes through a roastery. We have never found the desire from our customers for organic certification higher than the desire for quality and paying fair prices to our growing partners.
We are always assessing and reviewing our decision to not be certified organic, and we never say never, but for now we think the aim of searching for the best quality in a cup is our primary mission while making sure our growing partners continue to sustainably grown the best coffee they can using the best farming practices for them.
- Stephen Leighton