By Kathy Gallo
In recent years, people have become more and more health-conscious. An important part of this is a growing awareness of what we eat and drink, and one of the most popular choices is going organic.
Here we look at the benefits associated with organic coffee.
What Does “Organic” Really Mean?
First of all, let’s take a step back and think about the definition of organic coffee. What makes coffee “organic” and who is responsible for deciding?
In the U.S. at least, organic certification is granted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). To be labeled as “organic,” producers must adhere to a strict set of guidelines. This is regardless of whether the product comes from inside or outside of the U.S.
One of the central facets of this policy is that virtually all artificially manufactured pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are prohibited. However, this does not necessarily mean that coffee is 100% “chemical free” since some synthetic substances are permitted under certain circumstances.
Another key part of the policy relates to the land under cultivation. The land where a crop is grown must have been free of these prohibited substances for a minimum of three years.
During the period between when the use of these substances was stopped and the end of the three years, the land is considered to be “in transition” but crops grown there cannot be labeled as “organic.”
Finally, a for a crop to be certified as organic, a buffer zone is required between that crop and other non-organically grown crops. This helps to alleviate pesticde and GMO pollen drift (although coffee crops are not currently GMO).
What are the Health Benefits of Organic Coffee?
Most people will be aware that organic products – coffee or otherwise – are more expensive than conventionally-grown products, but what are the benefits?
Many people have at least a vague notion that they are somehow “healthier” or “better for the environment,” but in which ways is this true?
Organic coffee has several distinct benefits that can be broken down into benefits for the environment, benefits for farmers, benefits to the community and benefits to the consumer. Let’s have a look at each of these in turn.
Benefits to the Environment
One of the biggest advantages of organically-grown coffee is its benefit to the environment. Traditionally, coffee was grown in the shade of other trees in a natural environment.
The forest canopy provided a habitat for many bird species, the falling leaves from larger trees provided natural fertilizer and pests were controlled by natural predators.
However, with this kind of farming, the beans develop more slowly. While this allows for more complex flavors to develop, it also yields less than coffee that ripens quickly in the sun.
As coffee production increased to meet global demand, vast areas of forest were cleared to make way for coffee plantations. As these plantations spread, precious natural habitats were destroyed, which, along with the use of chemical products led to the extinction of local species.
A return to shade-grown organic coffee can provide much-needed habitats for birds and other species while protecting the land from the use of harmful synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
According to 2014 statistics, as many as 250 pounds of pesticides are sprayed per acre on “conventional” coffee crops. As you might expect, this process doesn’t exactly produce the healthiest coffee for people or the environment.
Benefits to Organic Farmers
Coffee is grown within a band that stretches around the globe between the tropics; it is only there that the climate is suitable for the commercial growth of this crop. However, this “coffee belt” also coincides with many of the world’s developing countries.
In many of the countries where coffee is grown, the checks and controls on the substances being used do not exist or are poorly enforced. Furthermore, there is often a lack of education when it comes to the correct procedures for handling dangerous chemicals.
Even if chemicals do not cause death outright in humans, if they are not handled in the proper way, they may lead to a number of health concerns which can range from the minor to the extremely serious.
For example, one study in Jamaica demonstrated that the majority of farmers showed the symptoms of at least one health condition related to handling chemical products. Worldwide, about 200,000 deaths occur due to direct pesticide exposure, believe it or not, according to a World Health Organization report. Pesticide-related deaths among coffee growers are rare, but at least 4 were reported along with over 200 cases of human poisonings from 1993-1994.
By switching to organic, these health issues can largely be avoided.
Furthermore, although organic coffee is more labor-intensive to produce, it also fetches a much higher price on the market in many cases.
This extra cash makes its way down the chain as far as the farmers themselves, the people who are usually in most need of the extra money.
Unfortunately, however, some organic farmers struggle to pay the costs of organic certification, and make less net income than conventional growers in many cases as a result.
This highlights the importance of supporting organic coffee growers even more — the health benefits of organic coffee itself (when taken in moderation) notwithstanding.
Benefit to the Community
Of course, the farmer probably also has a family to support, and so keeping farmers healthy is of vital importance to the community as well.
However, there is more to it than just this. Organic farming methods and the avoidance of chemicals helps keep the environment and water supply clean, meaning the health benefits are also spread to the rest of the community.
Maintaining a thriving community with a steady source of income also ensures jobs are available for the next generation of farmers. This in turn allows them to provide for their families in the same way without needing to move away in search of work elsewhere.
Benefits to the Consumer
Unlike with many foods, by the time coffee reaches the consumer, the chemical residue from the substances used to grow conventionally-grown beans is minimal. The processing, washing and roasting leave only negligible trace amounts.
However, natural shade-grown coffee that has been allowed to ripen more slowly can often deliver a more flavorful and complex cup that mass-produced sun-grown coffee does not always provide.
This is not to say that all organic coffee tastes better than conventionally-grown coffee – organic coffee is just like any other product, with some high-quality beans being produced as well as some sub-standard ones. Some coffee roasters and baristas are simply better than others as well, depending on their skill and level of experience.
Perhaps the greatest benefit – and the reason why we should be willing to pay more for organically grown beans – is simply for the peace of mind that this product contributes to the sustainability of the coffee industry and the environment.
This way, we know that we are doing our bit – for the farmers, for their communities and for Mother Nature – since without these, we wouldn’t have any coffee at all.
Final Thoughts on the Benefits of Organic Coffee
Although more expensive, organic coffee is undoubtedly beneficial at every step of the production process.
It is important to protect the farmers, their communities and the environment in which they work and live, especially since only 6.6% of all coffee grown worldwide is organic according to a 2014 report from the International Coffee Organization.
Looking for the “organic” label when buying coffee can contribute significantly to a healthier world, and a better-tasting and healthier cup.
Kathy Gallo is a dedicated coffee lover who is passionate about protecting the environment and supporting the farmers who grow the beans to make her favorite drink. She enjoys writing about her experiences in the hope of sharing her ideas with as many others as possible.
P.S. Editor’s Note: If you’re looking for an ethical organic coffee company to support, check out Newman’s Own. The company gives 100% of its profits to charity, and features both K-Cup organic coffee and regular organic coffee on Amazon.com.