Organic Coffee: Past-Present-Future

Organic food was once the only choice consumers had. Before synthetic fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides were invented, that was it.

It was reported this month that the organic coffee market has topped $1.3 billion, securing its place as the most valuable organic product imported into the US. This is surprising. Most of what you read about organics pertains to produce, meat, dairy, eggs, and baby food. That’s because there is a clear and direct perceived health benefit. For example, when your customers stand in the produce aisle and pick up a piece of fruit, they understand what the organic apple offers. So why is organic so important to coffee drinkers?

Of course “organic” agriculture has always existed, since it is simply the act of farming without the use of synthetic chemicals. Non-organics (or what we now call “conventionals”) didn’t exist until the 20th century. Fertilizers, pesticides and other modern methods were designed to enhance yields and minimize risk of crop damage. In the case of coffee, it also meant the invention of new varietals designed to withstand sunlight as modern farms abandoned the cooler, richer soil of high elevation coffee farms in favor of farming high yielding, but poorer farms in the flats. Quality was compromised, opening up the market opportunity for differentiation via “organic quality” – a product benefit that appealed to everyone, versus those just interested in sustainability.

As consumers have learned to appreciate the benefits of organic products across all categories (both sustainable and perceived quality), demand has grown at a rate over 20% per year since the 1990s, compared with the growth of conventional foods at 2-3%. With this growth, third party certifications ensure compliance with organic standards as production expands to meets this growing demand. Most notably, the OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Council) began certifying organic coffees in the early 1980’s. Through the OCIA, coffee growing is certified at the country of origin and as well as production at the roasting facility.

Going forward, organics in the traditional categories (produce, baby food, etc) will compete for mindshare with buzz words like local, fresh, pesticide free, and traceable. In specialty coffee, organic will continue to grow in importance as a quality differentiator, and a critical point of value for those of us interested in environmental sustainability. That the coffee market has embraced organic certification not only encourages more sustainable agricultural practices at coffee’s origins, but can further its contribution to making specialty coffee a more distinctive and enjoyable drink.

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