Sustainable Organic Systems

Part 2: Building A Sustainable Organic Coffee System & Consumer Trust

In today’s world of Product Labeling Schizophrenia (i.e. Organic, Non-GMO, Humane, Fair Trade, Farmer Justice, etc.) it is essential to engage in a legally recognized organic certification program that enforces organic product labeling claims through annual farm and handler plans, inspections, and re-certification by an accredited third-party certifier.

It is essential to point out that under the NOP Standards, the system is processed-based, which includes the whole system, from seed-to-shelf. Non-legal standards and/or residue testing and/or residue levels do not determine organic product certification. The NOP requires periodic residue testing and reporting of any residues found; the rule is that organic product cannot contain residue levels exceeding 5% of the EPA and/or FDA Residue Levels. The NOP now requires their accredited certifiers to pull annual residue samples as a percentage of their client base and report those findings.

It’s important to recognize the critical elements of organic systems; transparency, traceability, audit trail and product recall are required by the NOP for all certified entities. The question remains; why organic product transparency?

Today’s consumer is label smart. They read product labels before they buy, to make sure these products meet their principles and values. Price is important, but product quality, taste, and values exchanged are more important to today’s consumer.

Millennial Parents, ages 18-34 (as reported by OTA Survey/SFN-9/22/16), are more aware of the benefits of organic, place greater value on knowing where their food was grown and processed, and are deeply committed to supporting a food system that sustains and nurtures environmental, social, cultural, and economic principles of sustainability. In fact, they are demanding full transparency and product traceability form seed-to-shelf, and they will support nothing but food they can trust! 

I have had the privilege to work with small, medium, and large growers in many parts of the world, but organic is size-neutral and all farmers must meet the rigid organic standards and requirements.

Small farmers make up most of the organic coffee production worldwide. It’s a group I find the most challenging and rewarding, particularly when they are not formally organized as a legal entity, which is required. The organic community and governments have set up a special certification category – GROWER GROUPS. They are required to demonstrate and verify they have in place an Internal Control System (ICS), giving them management capability and administrative responsibility. They control and record farmers’ field maps, crops, planting stock/seed, fertilization, crop tools, pest management, materials labels, annual re-certification, schedule inspections, and records throughout the organic system. Also recorded are crop harvest, quality, quantity, gross/net organic coffee produced by grower, and, if they also produce both organic and non-organic coffee, they must prove they can keep organic separate from non-organic, otherwise they will not be certified – records are essential here!

They maintain post-harvest records like: coffee cherries harvested, processing location, wet/dry coffee and the final product sold and to whom. Waste management re-use/compost is critical too. This entire process is supported by detailed record keeping. The above audit trail system constitutes a complete product traceability system, and with supporting documentation and verification, must be maintained for all parts of the organic system. It is inspected and re-certified annually by a USDA-NOP Accredited Certifier. This same system is required for all organic processors and handlers of organic coffee.

Someday soon, some responsible organic coffee group and their consumers will trace their organic coffee from packaged lot #’s – and back to origin; including small growers. In fact, this system will provide complete organic product transparency, traceability, and authenticity to assure consumer and brand trust. Organic transparency is possible; it only awaits leadership. And when this leadership takes up this important challenge, it will forever change the paradigm for the organic coffee industry.

What I have tried to do in both Part 1 & 2 is to convey to the organic coffee industry and our valued customer base a legally enforced set of high standards. Organic System Plans (OSP), inspections, and annual certification using a common seal (i.e. USDA ORGANIC) is where our development, production, marketing, and consumer education dollars should go.

In order to build a sustainable, trusted, fair-priced and balanced organic coffee supply-chain, we as an industry must invest and change the current agriculture policy and subsidy programs, as we partner with family farmers of all sizes and community-based producer groups to transition to certified organic status, utilizing incentives, instead of subsidies.

We need to assist in organizing and educating all family farmers on the benefits of organic farming, on proven methods and sustainable practices, to not only grow organic coffee for export revenues, but also to grow local sustainable foods for their communities. With the threats of climate change and limited natural resources – vital soil, water, and land – we need to secure our future supply-chain through rewarding partners and building mutually beneficial models for our common good.

For many years, organic products have been seen and labeled at a premium price, too expensive for the average consumer to buy – this has all changed in the last twenty years.

Consider the real cost of food at the farm gate under the current heavily-subsidized and supported system, and the impact of the intensive chemical use, which flows downstream into our air and water systems, the cost to the environment, the health risks to our farmers and consumers, and the cost to clean up this externalization. Considering that sustainable and organic farmers internalize these cost at the farm gate, sustainable and organic products are a good investment in a values-based system, and a fair market price for all.

By buying Certified Organic coffee you will be supporting a responsible system that supports family farmers, and rural communities and businesses that deliver these values-based products to the consumers who do give a damn, and it will be important to the next generation of organic coffee producers and consumers!

Thank you.

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