March 12

Organic Certification – Not Only Relevant Today, But Vital

There has been talk lately about whether organic certification is relevant to the specialty coffee sector, especially along the lines of direct relationships and directly paying the farmer the equivalent of the organic premium required from roasters, regardless of the production method. I asked several luminaries in the coffee arena if they would like to comment on this position and the following are their thoughts.

Dr. Robert Rice, Geographer with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center of the National Zoo and Coordinator of its Bird Friendly® shade-grown coffee certification program: There certainly is nothing wrong with direct relationships between grower and roaster. There is a long history of those arrangements that reaches back into the 1800s; it is not a new phenomenon. But to focus solely on the amount of money paid to growers misses the point. Surely, there exists a group of organic producers who have gotten certified organic strictly for the economic benefits that brings them. We have seen that growers in countries like Guatemala or Kenya or others can get upwards of a $0.30 to $0.40 premium for the organic seal. Where volume and markets allow them to sell all of the coffee as organic and get the premium because it is organic, the return has been hefty.

However, many growers have gone the organic route from the standpoint of ideology or worldview. They see themselves as protectors of the land, and believe that good land stewardship is a responsible approach that they want certified. Given the multitude of brochures/pamphlets/websites that proclaim the behaviors and benefits associated with certified organic production, it is difficult to chalk those up to mere greedy greenwash. My own interaction with growers over the years convinces me that many growers with organic certification are in it for all the right reasons, i.e., because it is a responsible way to farm and a certification is the only independent, non-conflict of interest way of identifying one’s farming techniques. I do not think anyone should need convincing of the fallacy of self-reporting, self-monitoring, etc. that accompanies a lot of the direct relationship arrangements.

Of course, a number of roasters have developed their own set of criteria and third-party evaluation. But that rarely, at least in my readings/experience, involves the use of synthetic fertilizers and/or pesticides. And even if it does, I have never heard of a roaster refusing the coffee from one of his favorite sources because of non-met criteria in the evaluation. But all of these arguments ignore the very basic issue of what certified organic means for the consumer and for the land upon which the coffee is being produced.

Coffee quality in the specialty market reigns above all else; that is a truism. But I would argue that there are a host of coffee consumers who would rather drink a very good certified organic coffee than opt for an excellent “relationship” coffee that is plied with high levels of petroleum-based fertilizers and sprayed with toxic cocktails of pesticides. Ask the grower who has benefited not only from the premium but also from a soil (a fundamental variable in producing coffee in terms of quality and quantity) that only gets richer with time as the organic practices are applied year after year.

Rick Peyser, Director of Social Advocacy and Supply Chain Community Outreach, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a leader in specialty coffee and coffee makers: Organic certification of products including specialty coffee focuses on how products were grown, i.e., on healthy soil, without synthetic chemicals, etc. This certification is conducted by an independent third party. Any argument that solely advances the economic benefit of this certification to producers misses the mark. While economics are critically important, so are the environment and watershed where the farmers and their families live. The promise of higher yields via intensive and expensive inputs has contributed to deforestation and the general degradation of the environment that has had a negative impact on soil fertility, waterways, migratory birds and other wildlife, and on human health. The “premium” paid for organic certification, while helpful to the small-scale farming family, is still by itself usually not enough to lift this family out of poverty. Paying the farmer the “equivalent” of the organic premium in lieu of organic certification limits the farmer’s audience of buyers, potentially locking the farmer in to one buyer with its own proprietary certification that is not well recognized by most consumers. This “equivalent” premium is still not sufficient for the farmer or the greater environment. More is needed.

Daniele Giovannucci, Executive Director, Committee on Sustainability Assessment (COSA), which offers a highly regarded global benchmark used by leading global companies and international development agencies: A good price is very important as are good relationships; this is not in question. But we have learned that this is not enough. Quite simply: price is necessary but not sufficient for sustainability. Considering only the financial component is very short-sighted and can negate the other considerable factors operating in any production system: social, environmental and economic ones. This has been amply demonstrated by thousands of COSA surveys and by a number of other credible scientific investigations just in the past few years.

We no longer live in a world of arm’s-length transactions where we all know and trust each other, so third-party certifications, such as organic, have become a vital way to reasonably ensure that consumers (and firms) get what they expect for their money. Equally important, if not more so, we need clear assurances that the approaches we use enable producers to also achieve their own goals of satisfaction, healthy environment, and a decent livelihood.

Stephen Schulman, Director of Business Development/Corporate Division, S&D Coffee, which, as the nation’s largest custom roaster, is bringing sustainable coffees to scale: There has been a paradigm shift among U.S. consumers. As can be seen by the rapid trajectory in growth in the organic market (which reached almost $29 billion in 2010), today’s U.S. consumers want “all things organic,” and assume and expect that anything organic is “better” or “higher quality.” The segment of the consumers committed to the organic lifestyle is increasing, and they want to support all that organic represents. Let’s look at the figures. Organic coffee sales continue to grow rapidly, as can be seen from the Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey. This report showed that sales of organic coffee were up 17.5 percent in 2010 from those in 2009. Similarly, sales of organic coffee certified to the SMBC’s Bird Friendly shade-grown coffee production standard rose from about $1.5 million in 2005 to more than $4 million in 2010 (assuming $9 per pound). The three years from 2007 to 2010 saw an average of 25 percent annual increase in the volume of Bird Friendly roasted and sold in the North American market, a growth mirrored globally as well. Consumers care about the organic label, and what it represents to the environment and producers.

The experts have spoken. Organic certification is important not only from an economic perspective, but also because consumers expect it and are seeking it out, and both society and the environment benefits from it. There is more to specialty coffee than money.

Sandra Marquardt is the coffee spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association and President of On the Mark Public Relations.

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