Sustainability Q&A Live #1 – What is Organic Coffee?

Here at Counter Culture, we strive for real sustainability and a commitment to cutting-edge coffee education. As part of our mission, we have started a live, monthly video discussion with our Sustainability Manager, Meredith Taylor, about varying topics that relate to sustainability in the coffee industry. The videos will be streamed live on the first Wednesday of the month on Facebook and Instagram—where we will be taking questions from viewers online!

The first episode of the series, can be viewed here. The following excerpt highlights the discussion from September about the definition of the term “organic.”

What is the definition of organic as it pertains to coffee?
Organic certification for a crop—in this case, coffee—has four basic components:

  1. No use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides. This means that nothing that is manufactured or chemically derived can be used. There is a short list of accepted synthetic inputs, but, in general, most everything used must be non-synthetic.
  2. How the soil is managed. Most of the rules around organic agriculture are about soil management. This includes things like how you keep the soil healthy, how many and what kind of nutrients are in the soil, etc. This is particularly important for coffee because the beans grow on trees that root and stay in the same place for decades in the same soil.
  3. How farmers manage pests and diseases. Organically managing pests include things like introducing predator species or using cover crops.
  4. Whether or not you have a plan. To be organically certified, you must have a strict management plan and keep very detailed records.

What is the difference between “certified organic” and “USDA organic”?
They’re very similar. All organic certification in the U.S. comes through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and has to meet the USDA’s rules. Crops from outside of the U.S. can also be certified to the USDA standard. Different countries can have different certifications, as well. For example, Japan has their own certification, but most of the tenets are the same. Most of the other major international certifications, like Japan’s, have parity in the U.S.—meaning that the USDA says those products can be labeled as organic even though technically the standard used to certify wasn’t the USDA one.

Are most or all of Counter Culture’s coffees “direct trade”?
Organic is a specific certification with certain rules and regulations you have to meet. Direct trade, on the other hand, doesn’t have standard rules across the board, so many companies in the industry use the term in different ways. For us, direct trade pertains to how much and how directly we work with the farmers who grow our coffee. Our goal is to have all of our relationships be direct. You can find information about all of the coffees we buy in our Transparency Report.

Are there organic certifications that are specific to coffee?
No, organic certification is broken down into two categories: crops and livestock. Coffee falls under the crop category and must meet all of the requirements from the first question to be certified organic. Interestingly, to sell a product as certified organic, everyone in the supply chain has to be certified. This means that we, as the processor, have to be certified as well as the exporter, importer, and the transporter. This maintains the integrity of the coffee throughout the whole process.

What things do we as the “processor” have to do to be certified organic?
We have to keep our organic coffees and non-organic coffees separate and make sure no outside factors affect the coffees—which is done for all of our coffees.

Why are some of our coffees labeled organic and some are not?
Not all of our coffees are certified organic. The ones that are will be labeled as such on the front of our bags and again on the back. For our branded “year-round” bags, such as Apollo, pictured on the left, and our wholesale bags, they will say “Certified Organic by QCS,” which is a third-party agency that inspects our roastery, and it will also have the certified organic logo. For our single-origin and limited-release bags and boxes, like Concepción Huista, pictured on the right, they will say on the front whether they are organic, but will not have the logo.

What we really like to see from farmers is a plan for managing soil fertility, and, just because some of our coffees aren’t certified organic, doesn’t mean that the farmers aren’t doing good work. Some farmers will choose to maintain soil quality by becoming certified organic, but it isn’t the only way. For example, some of the farmers we work with in Nariño, Colombia, aren’t certified, but they go above and beyond by making their own compost and other organic soil inputs.

We also want to support farms that are working toward becoming certified, and the best way we can do this is to buy their coffee during their transition period. To be certified, you can’t have used synthetic inputs for three years, and this is a crucial period to support farms.

Why would we offer non-organic coffee?
We want to support farmers who want to transition. We don’t want to turn away farms where organic certification isn’t financially viable. Sometimes it can be hard to get farmers to transition based on their past practices. These are just a few reasons why we have non-organic coffee.

We are currently working on a sustainability scorecard for the places where we buy coffee that will address not only environmental sustainability, but also social and financial sustainability—which don’t get addressed with organic certification.

Is it a financial burden to be certified organic?
Organic certification can be expensive. You have to pay for the registration and inspections, and it can also be very time consuming. People get paid a premium for coffee that is certified, but it takes time, so it’s not always clear that it will financially pay off.

It is also more expensive for us to purchase certified organic coffee which translates into slightly higher prices for consumers, as well.

How much corruption takes place within the organic certification process?
There are big certifiers including the USDA and the Japanese certifiers. Then there are on-the-ground companies like our third party company, QCS, who do the actual inspections. While there hasn’t been talk of widespread corruption, there is always a possibility of it. We don’t perceive it as a big problem.

Is organic coffee better or safer coffee?
No, you can’t really taste the difference between organic and non-certified organic. What matters for organic is what happens over time. This means thinking about which coffee will taste better 10 or 15 years into the future. You also have to take into consideration how profitable farmers will be in the future based upon their certifications or lack thereof.

Because coffee is the seed of the fruit, when pesticides are sprayed on, they are done so to the outside of the fruit, not directly on the bean. After they are picked and processed, the beans are roasted at very high temperatures—ensuring that anything unwanted doesn’t survive.

Organic is also safer for the workers, because it minimizes the risk for the workers applying substances on the coffee trees.

Be sure to join us every first Wednesday online for our new live, video series. The next episode will be about climate change!