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Organic Coffee Labeling: What Does it Really Mean?

by Jessica Percifield, published

organic-coffee-labeling A coffee farmer dries out his crop /

Have you ever noticed the tiny labels on the bags of coffee you buy from your local roaster or in the grocery store? Maybe, like me, you’ve searched out a particular label because you’re concerned about sustainability, economic justice, deforestation, biodiversity, bio-safety, soil loss or the bird habitats in the Amazon and Costa Rica.

The question is, are these labels helping the plight of environmental or economic sustainability or causing further complication?

We’ll explore how organic coffee beans are labeled and you can decide for yourself as to whether or not what’s on the bag is really accurate.

Certified Organic

First, there is USDA Certified Organic, which meets the standards set forth for “any farm, wild crop harvesting, or handling operation that wants to sell an agricultural product as organically produced.” Essentially, this means that the coffee has been grown without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

The trouble with this labeling is costliness, and while farmers may already use organic practices, there is no way many of them could afford certification. So, you are stuck with how much you trust the person selling the produce, when they tell you, “No, it isn’t Certified Organic, but it is ‘organically’ grown.”

It is a long held belief among leaders in the specialty coffee industry that ‘organically’ grown, whether the farmer has been Certified Organic or not, still produces a higher quality or better tasting bean. And while Certified Organic or ‘organically grown’ coffee crops may save farmers and the environment alike from exposure to toxic chemicals, it does not address the economic disparity between those who buy, roast, and sell organic coffee in the developed world.

Fair Trade

With guidelines set by Fair Trade USA, Fair Trade seeks to remedy this economic disparity. Small farmers who form coffee cooperatives are eligible for Fair Trade certification, which guarantees them a minimum price for their product, cutting out middlemen, allowing them to get a higher price for their crop. These cooperatives must be farmer-owned and democratically run. A portion of the premium paid for their crop is often re-invested in the community, training, or other projects.

Fair Trade goes a step further and overlaps with standards for organic certification by prohibiting the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides that put the farmer’s health at risk; consequently, prohibiting conventional farming practices that also harm the environment.

This is why you’ll hear your local roaster say, “If you see the Fair Trade Label, then it is ‘organically’ grown.” The Fair Trade guidelines also ensure safe working conditions, better wages, and prohibit child labor. Compliance with these guidelines -- tracked by a disinterested third party -- lends credibility by providing a respected level of transparency.

Critics of Fair Trade are the same that challenge minimum wage laws, arguing that it sets a wage ceiling as well as floor, in which buyers acting rationally will seek to pay despite other rational variables that are considered in the market, such as supply, demand, or quality.

The argument is that more farmers will enter the market and flood it with supply subsequently decimating the price those not Fair Trade Certified can ask, drowning the market. With the cost of certification and what is needed to keep it, the critics may have a point. In fact, a study published in 2011 seems to indicate that neither Fair Trade nor Organic producers make significantly more than conventional farmers.

Direct Trade

Those involved in Direct Trade believe they are not only able to pay higher prices than a farmer at a Fair Trade Co-op might receive for their beans, but they are able to reward much higher prices for quality. In some cases, Direct Trade roasters share profit on quality beans in the form of bonuses.

Since it is believed by practitioners of Direct Trade that the best beans are grown in a traditional fashion -- in the shade without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides -- they will often invest money in organic growing practices and only buy from farmers who use them or from farmers who are Certified Organic by the USDA.

Critics of Direct Trade point to the fact that, unlike Fair Trade, there is no one program for compliance, which makes transparency more difficult. Direct Trade, asks the consumer to trust those involved (like Stumptown or Peet’s Coffee & Tea) without the verification of a disinterested third party.

Many go to great lengths to provide individual transparency. Stumptown posts the prices it pays the farmer on its website. Others post photographs of their trips to all their farms documenting the relationship for consumers.

Other Labels

There are more labels, such as Rainforest Alliance Certified, Shade-grown Certified, Bird Friendly, and Utz Kapeh or Utz Certified coffee. Each has either more specific standards, or overlapping standards in common with the big three.

One thing is clear, each label leaves something to be desired. There are undeniable issues with expensive certification programs for people living at subsistence levels, many beholden to the economic cycle of debt involved in conventional farming.

The good news is that all these ways of tackling sustainability and economic justice are aiming to solve the problems inherent in a globalized economy. I would just say we’re not there yet.

As consumers, we shouldn’t just look at a label and feel comfortable that “sustainability” and “economic justice” is just as neat and tidy as it looks on the bag. Resolving historical economic inequality and environmental degradation will take a constant gardener weeding out the things that don’t work and feeding the things that do.

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