What Makes Organic Coffee, Well, Organic?
If you enjoy coffee, I mean if you really enjoy coffee, then you can probably talk at great length about what makes the particular coffees that you love your favorites. You may also know a great deal about the coffee growing regions of the world. And you may know something about the natural fermenting process that coffee goes through as it is transformed from the cherry on the bush, to the roasting bean at your local micro-roaster.
You may even have a justifiable position on the relative merits of shade-grown vs. plantation style coffee, and know the difference between direct-trade and fair trade. Kudos to you!
But what about the difference between organic and conventionally grown coffee? And what does the term “organic coffee” actually mean?
Chances are that, like with most of what we purchase and consume, your understanding of organic growing practices and the major differences between organic coffee and conventional coffee is shaky at best. It’s not an overly complicated distinction, but understanding it well can help you prioritize organic status appropriately in your decision making about what is rapidly becoming an expensive necessity.
Organic Definitions for Coffee
It may be hard to believe, but the word organic did not legally mean much until the last couple of decades. And while the grocer at your local co-op or natural market may have had their own definition, each certifying body was free to come up with their own standards for what qualified as organic, versus natural, versus conventional.
In the years since the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 established the National Organic Program under the USDA, the definition of organic has been legally codified, and is generally understood to mean: “grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers and untreated with preservatives and other chemicals on its way to the consumer.”
It gets more complicated for animal products, but we’re talking about coffee here.
A Little Perspective on What Organic Coffee Means
Worldwide producers bring more than twelve billion pounds of coffee to market every year. And coffee only grows well in very specific types of geographical conditions. With limited space and near-unlimited demand for the finished product, the use of chemical shortcuts to up production is practically a given.
Add the temperamental nature of coffee as a crop to the mix, and you can understand how coffee came to be one of the most heavily treated foods in the world.
Conventional coffee production, as attractive as the final price may be, relies on chemical insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers, all of which affect the quality of the finished product as well as the health of both the consumer and the people who farm coffee or live nearby.
The Best Choice for Coffee Lovers
Good quality coffee and organic coffee are often one and the same, and the only real trade-off involved with going organic with your coffee purchases typically has to do with price.
This is not to say that all organic coffee is of naturally higher quality than conventionally grown coffee. Many small producers cannot afford the fees associated with organic certification and may produce organic coffee that cannot be labeled as such.
Talk to your coffee supplier, understand where your favorite brew is coming from, and make your own educated decision on whether organic is worth it to you.