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Why organic coffee might be the only way to save coffee

 Coffee seedbeds with recently sprouted coffee plants.

When Death Wish Coffee Co. founder Mike Brown toured coffee farms throughout Peru two years ago, he could tell which ones were organic and which weren’t. He says the difference between the two was like looking at a meticulously cared-for lawn versus the front yard of a homeowner who’s been out of town for weeks.

“The coffee plants were much taller [on the organic farms],” Brown said. “There were strategically placed plants and trees to help with shade and pest control. They were just doing everything right.”

An aerial view of the Miraflores sector of the Fair Trade Certified Selva Andina coffee cooperative.

Brown believes the result is better coffee beans. He isn’t the only coffee fanatic to value organic: Almost 20 percent of the world’s organic permanent cropland is used to grow coffee (tied for the most of any crop). The amount of organic land being used to grow coffee has increased five-fold since 2004.

So why should you care that your favorite brand is 100 percent organic, from the ground to your grinder? Because it’s the best chance you have at continuing to enjoy top-notch coffee for years to come. Here’s why.

What makes organic coffee different?

Organic coffee is handled differently from conventional coffee at every stage of the process.

An organic coffee farmer must:

  • refrain from using most chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides (including for a three-year period before organic certification is granted)—see below for more details
  • submit to regular inspections to ensure compliance

An organic coffee roaster/seller must:

  • use only organic cleaning products on the machinery
  • use only organic pest-control products in and around the production facility
  • “flush” the machinery with organic coffee to be discarded if it’s used to process any non-organic coffee. (Editor’s note: Another reason Death Wish uses only organic beans — we never waste coffee!)

The result is that organic coffee is superior to conventional in terms of reducing risk to the people who grow it and to the environments in which it’s grown.

 A fair trade worker picks ripe coffee cherries from his trees.

And if you value having an affordable, tasty, steady supply of coffee long into the future, protecting the environment is critical. A recent study found that if climate change progresses as forecasted, the world will see a 50 percent global reduction in areas suitable for growing coffee by 2050(<-Editor’s note: Nooooo!!!) 

How is organic coffee produced — and how is that different from the norm?

The beans that give coffee a smooth flavor — arabica beans — come from a tree that naturally grows best in the shade. In order to maximize profits, however, conventional, large-scale growers bred plants that could be packed together densely in the sun, where they grow faster.

Trees packed tightly together on a lush green mountain side.

The survival of those plants required the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, at least some of which have been proven to have adverse effects on the environment and human health.

“I believe one of the biggest threats to environmental/human health in agrosystems (anywhere, really) is the fact that ecosystems are full of a combination of inputs and we have no idea how they interact or what their impact is, or how long they remain in the environment, continuing to interact,” said University of Michigan ecologist Julie Craves in an interview.

In order to be certified organic, a grower must refrain from using most chemicals entirely (though a limited number of chemicals may be used as a last resort).

Therefore, it’s difficult to grow organic coffee in the sun, Craves said. The environmental benefits of growing coffee in the shade, as nature intended, include reduced soil erosion, fewer weeds, and a better-quality product.

What types of coffee beans can be produced organically?

Both arabica beans (the smoother, generally regarded as tastier ones) and robusta beans (the bolder, higher-caffeine ones) can be produced organically, and the Death Wish blend incorporates both types of organic coffee beans.

Organic coffee beans drying in a sun drying room.

Robusta plants tend to be better able to withstand heat and humidity. However, they also contain a whopping 30 to 50 percent more caffeine than an arabica bean, which makes them a crucial component of the World’s Strongest Coffee.

“Robusta beans add that extra caffeine punch,” Brown says.

Where are most organic coffees grown?

The countries with the most land dedicated to organic coffee production are Mexico, Ethiopia, and Peru, countries also known for encouraging shade-grown coffee.

Other mostly shade-grown regions include Honduras, India, and Guatemala.

Death Wish’s arabica beans come primarily from Peru, Guatemala, and Honduras. Our robusta beans are typically from India or Mexico.

“The beauty of having a blend is, if we’re unable to get a certain coffee or a certain geographic area has a year where their beans aren’t as good, we’re able to roast and blend beans from other countries,” Brown says.

He credits his team of roasters for maintaining a consistently tasty and high-octane product throughout such changes.

A member of a Fair Trade Certified coffee cooperative carries a white bucket

Who determines organic certification?

Anything sold in the United States as organic (even if it was grown elsewhere) must be certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Farmers seeking USDA organic certification must refrain from using banned chemicals on their land for three years before they’ll be accepted, says Margaret Wilson, a media relations specialist at the organic advocacy nonprofit the Rodale Institute.

“Once that three years is completed and you have the seal, those products can be sold at a premium price, which then helps the farmer,” Wilson said in an interview. For coffee that is both Fair Trade and organic — as all the beans used by Death Wish are — the minimum price is $1.70 per pound, compared to $1.11 for conventionally grown coffee.

“Farmers also undergo regular inspections to make sure they’re complying with the standards,” Wilson said. “There’s really a system to make sure people who are saying they’re certified organic are really following the regulations.”

What are the benefits of organic coffee?

While the biggest reason to buy organic is to protect the people who grow your coffee and the places where it can grow, it may not be the only reason. The Rodale Institute is completing research on the nutrient density of organic versus conventional vegetables, research that could have implications that stretch to other crops.

It’s all about the soil, says Wilson: “Soil is a living, breathing organism in and of itself. It has all sorts of living networks that not only keep it bound together and help it absorb water, they also convey nutrients to the plants. When you use something like a fungicide, you’re killing off those networks in the soil. The plants can’t take those nutrients from the soil.”

Two hand cusp a big pile of soil

Nature is what brought us the sacred elixir we call coffee, and it’s best to respect that power.

“Nature’s all in a balance, and when we bring in outside inputs and try to force nature into a certain box, it’s going to affect what you get,” Wilson said.