(Beyond Pesticides, January 8, 2010) Market forces driven by multinational corporations with increased market share and depressed payments for organic and fair trade coffee is threatening the organic coffee industry in Latin America. This is reversing successful efforts to improve worker and environmental protection in the production of a crop that was introduced to Latin America by Jesuit monks three hundred years ago.
According to a recent Time Magazine article coffee has grown to a $70 billion a year industry, making coffee the second most valuable traded commodity after oil. Yet, small growers remain mired in poverty, where working conditions can be miserable; laboring on dangerously steep mountain sides, being exposed to dangerous pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and often going hungry for months out of the year. Organic and fair trade certified production provided a socially just response to this reality.
A decade ago when coffee prices were at an all time low, many growers switched to organic for the premium price they could receive. A new article in the Christian Science Monitor highlights the unfortunate trend of growers switching back to conventional chemical-intensive methods. The Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education in Costa Rica (CATIE) estimates that 75% of the World’s organic coffee comes from Latin America. While the ecological benefits are clear, the economic incentive is disappearing.
Coffee prices have rebounded in recent years, however major retailers of organic coffee such as Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and Starbucks are driving down the premium paid for organically certified products. Lower premiums mean many small growers can no longer cover the costs of organic certification and production. In order to be certified organic under U.S. Department of Agriculture standards and earn a premium. The soil must not be treated with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years. Many farmers incurred debt during the waiting period, and have since switched back to conventional production with the onset of lower prices.
Demand for coffee does not come primarily from coffee producing nations, but from the United States and Europe. According to the international human rights group Global Exchange, the U.S. is the world’s largest coffee consumer with Americans drinking one-fifth of the world’s coffee. It was also the U.S. that introduced many chemically-intensive farming methods to impoverished nations during the Green Revolution. If demand for organic and sustainably grown coffee in the U.S. and other developed nations continues to grow, farmers may return to organic production.
Conventional coffee production is very harmful to the environment. Industrialized coffee production is done in full sun, while the coffee plant has evolved to grow in the shade. Shade grown coffee sequesters more carbon than sun grown. When forests are cleared for industrial production migratory birds lose vital habitat. The plants grown in a monoculture in full sunlight outside their native habitat are more vulnerable to pest problems, so more chemical pesticides are used. Chloropyrifos, disulfoton, and triadimefon are just a few of the many harmful pesticides used in coffee production.
Organic agriculture embodies an ecological approach to farming that does not rely on or permit synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, antibiotics, sewage sludge, or irradiation. Instead of using these harmful products and practices, organic agriculture utilizes techniques such as cover cropping, crop rotation, and composting to produce healthy soil, prevent pest and disease problems, and grow healthy food and fiber.
Beyond Pesticides supports organic agriculture as effecting good land stewardship and a reduction in hazardous chemical exposures for workers on the farm. The pesticide reform movement, citing pesticide problems associated with chemical agriculture, from groundwater contamination and runoff to drift, views organic as the solution to a serious public health and environmental threat.
Organic integrity at all levels of production and marketing is crucial to the success of the organic food movement. To learn more about organics, visit Beyond Pesticides Organic program page.