Is it Organic?

Is it Organic?

By Rachel Beebe

This spring’s UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and the current COP27 talks highlight yet again how important considerations of ecological impact should be for all of us, no matter the industry. Steampunk has over the years tried hard to always work with environmental considerations in the forefront of our mind - whether it be designing our cafe menu to avoid food waste or in how we choose our coffee packaging. But what about the coffee itself? 

More than a label

Obviously coffee is grown far away, so how do you know under what conditions it is grown and harvested? How do you make the best decisions about which coffee to buy? This is where certification can come in handy. A quick label to tell you a coffee is ‘fairtrade’ or ‘direct trade’ or ‘organic’ is just a shortcut to make sure you are making the best buying decision. Or is it? There is so much to be said about fair and direct trade but we won’t get into that here, just now we would like to talk a little about organic. Also about whether a shortcut is really a good idea.

We do sometimes get asked by customers whether the coffee we roast is organic. We had a customer ask us this the other day in our cafe and without an easy yes answer she chose to go elsewhere to buy her cup of coffee. The short answer is: there is no easy or short answer to that question. We do however think it’s important that our customers care about the production of the coffees they are consuming. And obviously, we believe that farming without the input of any harmful chemicals is better for both the health of coffee growers and the planet and the sustainability of all our food systems, including the coffee industry. The trouble is, organic certification in coffee is a complicated and nuanced topic. This blog is an attempt to explain a bit better why that is so. 

Every step of the way

First, for coffee to be certified organic, all steps of the supply chain need to be certified for organic production. So, even if the farmer who grew the coffee did so without chemicals and adhered to organic agricultural principles, they might not be certified as an organic producer, so their coffee cannot be sold as organic. Also, if the other steps in the supply chain—processing, storage, transport, export or import—aren’t certified, then the coffee can’t be sold as organic. 

In the last stage of the process, in order to be a certified organic roastery, we’d need to either roast only organic coffee on our roasting machine, or get a different machine to use only for organic coffee. You can’t roast organic and non-organic on the same machine and maintain your certification. For a roastery our size, it would mean converting entirely and solely to sourcing  and roasting organic coffees.

So why not just do that?

This is where things get a little more complex. In some origins, such as Brazil, coffee is often grown on large estates that produce thousands of bags a year. In other countries, such as Ethiopia, coffee is often grown by smallholders—farmers who grow a small plot of coffee along with a mixture of other crops, some of which they harvest for themselves and some of which they sell. For smallholder farmers like these, certification can be prohibitively expensive, particularly as many small coffee producers around the globe are already living at or below the poverty line, struggling to make a profit at all. 

The costs to the farmer for getting certified include submitting paperwork such as drawings of the land, proof of no chemical inputs within a prescribed radius (including what your neighbour may be doing on their land), visits by inspectors and the payment of expensive fees. In addition, switching to organic production often means a decrease in crop size. According to the International Trade Centre’s 2021 Coffee Guide, yields may decrease by up to 20 percent for the first few years. And finally, there’s what’s known as a “conversion period” when switching to organic. Farmers can’t recoup the investment by labelling their coffee organic for the first three years of using organic practices.

As a roastery that wants to feature the best coffee being produced each season (and who only has one machine to roast on) it doesn’t make sense to only roast certified organic coffee because that would disqualify a huge portion of producers for whom certification is simply not an option. Organic certification schemes give competitive advantage to large scale producers over small ones, and as a small business ourselves, this is out of alignment with our ethos. 

An example from Brazil

Even for larger producers, the cost-benefit analysis of getting certified isn’t always clear. Let’s look closer at one of the biggest exporting origins in the world: Brazil. The cost of coffee in Brazil has the power to sway the world coffee market. A frost at the wrong time drives prices up around the industry, for example. According to the 2021 Coffee Guide, Brazil is one of the top three origins (along with Indonesia and Côte d’Ivoire) of organic coffee production. So clearly it’s a beneficial decision to switch to organic for many Brazilian farmers. But the view from the ground is a bit more nuanced. 

Bruna Costa of Kamba Coffee, from whom we buy Brazilian coffee told me, “Certifications are very controversial because they require farmers to invest a lot of money and they don’t have any assurance they will be able to sell their coffee for a premium.” Research she did in 2015 showed that the premium prices received by farmers for certified coffee did not vary greatly, but price differentials were found when considering the quality of the final product. What this means is that when a farmer is considering how to increase profitability, investing more directly in the quality of the crop is a more surefire bet than getting organic certification. 

Sustainability or certification - a Venn diagram

The uncertainty of profits from organic certification is likely because the volume of certified coffee on the market outstrips demand. In the 2019-2020 crop year 55 percent of global coffee production was certified (this statistic covers all certifications, not just organic) according to the Coffee Barometer, an annual collaborative report that presents an overview of sustainability and in the global coffee sector. So, what is likely happening is that those producers who operate at a scale that makes certification affordable are flooding the market, which drives down the price of certified coffee and makes certification a less attractive proposition for smaller producers who are on the fence about it. It’s also worth noting that the price premium for specialty coffee is already high so organic certification doesn’t add that much value. 

The overlap and differences between sustainability, certification and quality is a key point. To quote the 2021 Coffee Guide again, “Certification or verification is not essential to sustainability. In fact, a certified product is not necessarily sustainable. In the same way, a product may be completely sustainable despite having no certifications.” So, it’s like a Venn diagram, where there is some overlap between the sustainability of a coffee and whether it’s certified, but one does not necessarily imply the other. 

Where does quality fit in?

If you consider quality you get an even more complex picture. Bruna Costa notes that most of the time investing in quality will automatically assure increased sustainability standards. This makes sense. If a farmer is careful about how they manage their crop and their land, with a mind toward future crops, they’ll likely use ecological practices. However, the causal relationship between quality and sustainability isn’t crystal clear. Another importer I spoke to, Line Cosmidis, Head of Specialty Sales at Falcon Coffee, recounted instances when she’d cupped high-scoring coffees and then found out that chemical fertilisers had been used on them. “I wish I could say that there was a direct link between quality and sustainability, but unfortunately that’s not the case,” she said.

One way that small producers can sell certified organic coffee is by being part of a cooperative or association that foots the bill and manages the administrative piece of certification. This is often the case in Peru, for instance. In Peru certification is achieved because farmers are often members of coops. For the last few years Steampunk has been buying coffee from Falcon Coffee’s Peru project, which was set up by Falcon to work specifically with farmers who were either too geographically isolated to be part of a coop or didn’t want to work with the coops nearby. These producers are a good example of farmers who are using organic practices but aren’t certified organic growers. In fact, Line Cosmidis told me that organic fertilisers are easier to get than chemical ones in Peru. She contrasted this situation with the one in Rwanda, where chemical fertilisers are subsidised by the government as a way of supporting the country’s agricultural sector. (Of late, there have been calls from government officials and farmers in Rwanda for subsidies on organic fertiliser, especially with the rising costs of chemical fertilisers due to the war in Ukraine.)

Who does the work?

The truth is, producers and farm workers stand to lose the most from the impacts of climate change. And they and their land are the most at risk from harmful agricultural processes like toxic fertilisers and pesticides. A 2016 article in SCA News points out that pesticide use is more likely to damage the health of the producers and the health of their land than it is to damage the consumer’s health. Julie Craves, the ecologist who wrote the piece says, “Little or no chemical residue is likely to remain once the beans are removed from the fruit (the part exposed to pesticides), dried and hulled, roasted at very high temperatures, ground, then brewed in water.” 

Given this uneven spread of risk it’s worthwhile taking a hard look at consumers’ motivations for wanting to buy organic products. Sure, we all want to do right by the planet, but there’s an element of consumers wanting a label on their coffee that simply allows them to feel they’ve made a responsible choice. In making this choice we like to think that we’re encouraging organic farming—we’re voting with wallets. This approach makes total sense when it comes to a crop like cotton, but is less clear cut when it comes to coffee where this attitude puts the burden on the producer end rather than the consumer end of the coffee chain. 

Organic coffee is often served in throw-away single use cups, or is brewed in a pod that will end up in a landfill. Organic labels are stamped on bags that aren’t recyclable or compostable. Is it really right for consumers to blithely allow producers to assuage their eco-anxiety when they could be making more conscious choices about their own impact? 

As ever, it would be myopic to ignore the racial and historical elements present here. How’s this for framing: consumers from the global North buy a luxury product produced in the global South in mostly post-colonial origins by historically exploited communities of colour. And then those consumers turn around and try to tell the producers the best way to farm their crops? Shouldn’t it be up to producers to choose how they grow their coffee, how they care for their land, families and communities? 

The root cause

The whole mess highlights the problem with expecting solutions to social and ecological problems from within a system that, despite what it looks like on the surface, deep down really just perpetuates itself: Capitalism. We want very badly for the market to self correct, to take on the weight of our morals and tip the scales to make the world a better, more equal, safer and healthier place. And it’s tricky because often it seems like that might actually be possible. That’s the case with organic certification in coffee. Capitalism is pernicious and beguiling. It uses our desire to be good against us to achieve its own ends.

An alternative system: human connections

So, what is a well meaning coffee drinker to do? How can you know anything about the sustainability of a coffee if it’s not certified? The answer is, you can’t. You can’t know how a coffee was grown or its ecological impact unless you trust the person who sells it to you to be transparent about its origins and traceability. The reality is that as a roastery this is true for us as well. We trust our importers to tell us the backstory of the coffees we buy. We trust them to work with producers who are good stewards of sustainability. 

Our importers send us a wealth of information about the coffees we buy, and we trust them that it’s true. Many times the relationships between the importers we work with and the farmers whose coffee they sell us are clearly close—they’ve been working with the same growers for many years, they’ve invested in infrastructure that improves the livelihoods of the producers and sometimes they’re even blood relations (as is the case with our Brazilian importer, Kamba Coffee and our Guatemalan importer, Coffee Bird). 

So, yes we buy organic certified coffee sometimes. But we also recognise that the picture is more complex. Our ethos as a business means that we’ve chosen to eschew rigid, often flawed certification schemes and instead work with a handful of ethical green suppliers whom we trust. 



Notes, sources and additional reading:

We source our coffees through a handful of ethical green suppliers who work intensively in origin countries. We prioritise traceability and trustworthy information regarding the payments made to growers, the treatment of workers and the passing of value (income) back down the supply chain to producers. The specialty grade coffee which we roast is entirely hand picked (apart from some farms in Brazil) and largely cultivated by small scale producers. These farmers, although generally not using any sort of chemical inputs on their coffee, are unlikely to be certified as organic due to the complicated and expensive process of certification. This is not a process that is accessible to most of the small producers we wish to support with our purchasing

There are occasions where there is a slightly larger producer or a washing station or coop which manages the output of a group of farmers who are able to undertake that certification process for their members, in which case we may well have organic certified coffees. But the certification is not the basis of our buying decisions as it would mean that we could only buy from those larger scale producers. Over the years we have strived to build longer term relationships with small producers who care about how they operate and support their environment and community so that the income from the coffee they produce can go back into those communities. We feel this is more likely to have the positive and sustainable impacts we hope for in growing communities rather than income going only to large producers.

Please take a look at the coffee info on our website to see the sort of information we share about two very different producers of coffees we roast:

Nearly half (48%) of all new coffee product launches in 2020 boasted at least one ethical or environmental claim, up from 25% nearly a decade ago in 2012, according to a new report from the Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD).

But essentially yes certifications are very controversial because they require farmers to invest a lot of money and they don’t have any assurance they will be able to sell their coffee for a premium. My personal opinion is that investing in quality is a much better way to get premium prices and most of the time this will automatically assure increased sustainability standards.

As for the difference between Brazil and Ethiopia, Brazil has farmers of all sizes but most of them are medium to big whereas Ethiopia has mostly smallholders, making it almost impossible for them to afford investing on a certification if they are not associated with a cooperative or farm organisation.

Brazil is one of the top three origins, along with  Indonesia and Côte d’Ivoire, of organic coffee production. (The Coffee Guide, pp. 44)

Certification or verification is not essential to sustainability. In fact, a certified product is not necessarily sustainable. In the same way, a product may be completely sustainable despite having no certifications. Sustainable certification and verification are merely schemes that provide incentives for environmental protection and ethical business practices, and help monitor and evaluate them. … Today, a designated set of standards leads efforts for a more sustainable coffee sector. These cannot fully address the complex challenges the sector faces, however, and a true sustainable transformation of the coffee supply chain has yet to be achieved. (The Coffee Guide, pp. 44)

Coffee can be sold as organic only after organic cultivation has been practiced for at least three years before the first marketable harvest. This also means three years of inspection. This is called the conversion period. (The Coffee Guide, pp. 50, Box 5)

Organic farming might lead to higher production costs and sometimes a decline in the yield per hectare. This means that the producer must not only bear inspection and certification costs, but production might also fall, at least for a couple of years. Some sources suggest yields may decrease by 20%. (ibid)

The volume of certified coffee produced worldwide outstrips demand: “The total certified coffee in 2019-2020 covers 55% of global coffee production. This is not translated though in price premiums for farmers as the market does not absorb the total volume of certified coffee (…) This loss of differentiation potential negatively impacts the profitability of certified producers who made upfront investments for compliance. It reduces their financial capacity and motivation to invest in continuous improvement practices.” Coffee Barometer 2020.

Pesticide use is more likely to damage the health of the producers and the health of their land than it is to damage the consumer’s health. The ecologist who wrote the piece, Julie Craves, says, “Little or no chemical residue is likely to remain once the beans are removed from the fruit (the part exposed to pesticides), dried and hulled, roasted at very high temperatures, ground, then brewed in water.” (

According to the World of Organic Agriculture 2016 report, coffee is the world’s largest single organic crop. While comprising only two percent of all organic cropland, it covers over 20 percent of organic permanent cropland, and over half of the permanent cropland in Latin America, where the majority of organic coffee is grown. Moreover, coffee is grown in the tropics—home to some of the world’s most biodiverse areas and complex ecosystems. (ibid)

“analyze the perception of coffee producers regarding the advantages and disadvantages of the Voluntary Standard Systems (VSS), so to understand if their adoption can bring them financial and/or economic benefits.” Bruna’s MSc Thesis

With the analysis it was also possible to conclude that premium prices received for certified coffee did not vary greatly, regardless of the certification type, but price differentials were found when considering the quality of the final product. (ibid)

Certified producers argue that property management improvement, through the adoption of sustainable practices, was the biggest advantage after joining a certifier. Even the non-certified producers recognised this advantage. Therefore, the administrative savings with the use of a certification is undeniable and can be considered as one of the economic benefits besides from the actual premium price, (ibid)

We know that coffee—like all of our food—must become more sustainable. But how to accomplish that goal is less clear. This is an area of massive innovation, however.

And according to the 2021 report by The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), coffee is the second most important organic crop (after olives, interestingly), comprising 15 percent of permanent organic cropland.

Chemical fertilisers in Africa:

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