Organic Vs. Conventional Coffee

Coffee lovers are discerning people, and there’s a lot to say about its many flavors, aromas, and origins – but one of the biggest differences between coffees is most striking before it even reaches your cup.

It’s the difference between conventional and organic coffee. Even if you already choose organic in the produce aisle, you might wonder why it matters for your brew.

To put things in perspective, coffee is one of the most widely traded commodities in the world – with over 12 billion pounds of coffee produced annually.

Meeting that demand is no easy task. So over time, farming methods have been developed to maximize production – but often at the expense of human and environmental health. What results is the non organic, conventional coffee that many are used to. So what’s the difference between that and organic coffee?

First, conventional coffee is among the most heavily chemically treated foods in the world. It is steeped in synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides – a real mouthful with a bad taste. Not only does the environment suffer from this overload, but so do the people who live in it. Farmers are exposed to a high level of chemicals while spraying the crops and while handling them during harvest. The surrounding communities are also impacted through chemical residues in the air and water. These chemical presences are not just unpleasant; many are highly toxic and detrimental to human health.

In the case of organic coffee, there are no synthetic fertilizers or chemicals used in growing or production, which means cleaner beans, air, land, and water. The coffee is grown with only organic fertilizers, like coffee pulp, chicken manure, or compost. Organic farms also combat climate change by emitting less carbon than chemical farms, while also sequestering significant amounts of carbon. As a bonus, organic coffee beans are richer in healthful antioxidants, and many people can even taste the difference. Your health, and the health of the planet, both get a boost.

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Second, most conventionally grown coffee plants are hybrids developed to flourish in open sun. Coffee naturally prefers the shade, but a crop grown in thick forest is more difficult to tend and harvest, and cannot be planted as densely.

Forests are cleared to make room for open fields in which to grow mass amounts of this sun-loving coffee variety. Production increases, but the wild ecosystem of flora and fauna is demolished. Natural pest-deterrents, like birds and lizards, are left without a habitat – and coffee-ruining insects overpopulate, leading to more pesticide use. And without the natural fertilizer of these ecosystems (bird droppings, leaf litter, and natural decay) the use of chemical fertilizer increases.

When it rains, the lack of tree cover means there is increased water runoff. Soil washes away, and with it go natural nutrients, eventually eroding and degrading the soil so much that growth is almost impossible. The rainwater carries away not just the soil, but all of the chemicals it has been treated with, and both end up in local water supplies.

Most organic coffee is grown the natural way – within the shade of lush forests, providing a home for wild plants and animals, sustaining soil fertility, and keeping unique regional ecosystems alive. These forested farms also more resilient and better equipped to handle unusual weather patterns that are a result of climate change, making them a safer investment for farmers and their futures. Hundreds of thousands of acres of South American rainforests have already been demolished for various industries, but Equal Exchange has partnered with co-ops that are working to restore the land to its natural forested splendor while growing organic coffee.

So what can you do? The organic coffee market has grown according to increased demand from people who want to drink something they can feel good about. Industries can and do change based on the choices that you make in the grocery store or at your favorite café – so you can vote with your mug! By purchasing organic coffee where you can find it (and demanding it where you can’t), you support systems that value healthy ecosystems, sustainable methods, and superior coffee. Now that’s good taste!

Sources:

  • Barstow, Cynthia. The Eco-foods Guide: What’s Good for the Earth Is Good for You. Gabriola, B.C.: New Society, 2002. Print.
  • Basic Standards for Organic Production and Processing. Tholey-Theley, Germany: IFOAM, 2000. Print.
  • Benbrook, Charles. Core Truths: Serving Up the Science Behind Organic Agriculture: 2006 Compilation of Research. Foster, RI: Organic Center, 2006. Print.
  • “Coffee in the Global Economy.” Global Exchange. http://www.globalexchange.org/fairtrade/coffee/faq

About The Author

Sara Fiore

22 COMMENTS

  1. Matthew Falber | 16th Mar 20

    Hi! I appreciate your article but I’m inclined to disagree. I’d love to discuss this with you more. I can only speak to coffee producing in Guatemala but, I feel organic certification is too expensive for most coffee producers, not because of the way they produce it, but because of the cost you must pay to receive a certification. I also feel the certification process isn’t very thorough and that there are farms that are producing more environmentally friendly coffee on non-organic farms. Rainforest Alliance is a much better certification but again, it’s too expensive for most small farmers.

    • Kate Chess | 17th Mar 20

      Hi Matthew. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I reached out to our Green Coffee Buyer Kim, who had this to say:

      Regarding cost of certifications:
      – Yes, certifications are expensive, especially when taken on by an individual farmer. With cooperatives, the coop becomes certified and supports farmers transition (if needed) over a period of three years. The cooperative supports all (or a %) of their farmers maintain the certification & the agronomists are tasked to support the farmers comply with the standards set by the cert.
      The certification world isn’t perfect, but it offers businesses and consumers a way to vote with their dollar and support farmers’ efforts to protect the environment and maintain a more diverse ecosystem.

      Regarding farms that are producing more environmentally friendly coffee on non-organic farms:
      -While this may be true, see below re: Fair Trade and Organic trade standards. The environment is important to us, but what is more important is that we support entire communities & cooperatives by offering fair prices, long-term relationships, & financing — providing a pathway for coffee farmers to not just survive but thrive.

      Regarding Rainforest Alliance:
      – According to Rainforest Alliance’s (RA) website, the RA standard goes beyond organic in a number of critical sectors, including wildlife conservation and worker welfare. While that may be true on certain farms, like any certification, some cooperatives and farms take certifications more seriously than others. Some will do the minimum amount to comply with standards, while others go above and beyond.

      Yet compared to Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance lacks several critical key components including trade standards. There are no requirements for buyers to pay minimum or fairly negotiated prices, develop long-term relationships, or offer financing. If you ask any of the cooperatives that we work with, these are incredibly important as they enable the cooperatives to plan based on Equal’s projected purchases. Offering financing is one of the most important aspects because it offers the cooperative 70% of the contract value to pay their farmers “pre-harvest financing”. This helps guarantee that farmers will not sell to intermediaries, and ensures the cooperatives are able to fulfill contracts with buyers.

      In my eyes, one of the biggest differences between RA & certifications like FLO & Organic is that RA offers no minimum or guaranteed price. Ultimately price is the vital lifeline that makes all of this possible. If prices are too low, (as they are with conventional coffee now) some farmers will not bother even harvesting their coffee if they know they will not break even.

      All in all, I see RA as a program that is focused solely on management of on-farm environmental resources (which is still good) with some social standards for workers on farms. Because of its on-farm focus and lack of trade standards, it is more naturally suited for larger farms rather than the small producers that are at the core of the fair trade movement.

  2. Marvin Benadavid | 22nd Dec 19

    Does regular or decaf coffee have the highest concentration of potassium? This is relevant for coffee lovers with chronic kidney disease.

    • Kate Chess | 27th Dec 19

      Sorry, Marvin — potassium isn’t something we test for, so I can’t answer definitively. But according to an article by the National Kidney Foundation, coffee is considered a low-potassium food if consumed in moderation: https://www.kidney.org/newsletter/coffee-and-kidney-disease

  3. Jim Lynch | 1st Dec 19

    Can you share stats & sources of the fatalities and illnesses linked conclusively to these nasty, ugly things attributed solely to the consumption or production of conventionally produced coffee?

  4. Dan Goebel | 31st Jul 19

    I am a strong flavor lover, so I get the Equal Exchange Organic French Roast. I also like using the pods with my Keurig, so the flavor is more fresh/bold. Enjoy!

  5. Robert J Cuillo | 7th Jul 19

    Why does organic coffee taste much weaker than conventional coffee?

    • Kate Chess | 8th Jul 19

      If it’s brewed correctly, it definitely shouldn’t! Check the proportions of coffee to water that you’re using and make sure you’re using an appropriate grind for your brewing method. If that doesn’t help, try a dark roast for a bolder flavor.

  6. Linda | 25th May 19

    Where can I buy organic green beans?

    • Kate Chess | 28th May 19

      We only sell roasted beans — good luck with your search!

  7. Claire | 24th May 19

    I have been told that many coffee roasters do not seek out the Organic Certification, because it is very pricey, and then they would have to transfer that cost by paying the farmers less. Is there a way they show are Organic, even if they don’t acquire the cert?

    • Kate Chess | 28th May 19

      Hi Claire — it’s true, certifications are costly. All Equal Exchange coffee that says Organic IS certified organic, but it’s definitely a considerable expense.

  8. Mary Gates | 30th Mar 18

    Where do we buy organic coffee?

  9. William | 22nd Sep 17

    As small batch coffee roaster in Newburgh Indiana I appreciate that although a bit more expensive, the benefits far outweigh the cost.

  10. Connie | 14th Jul 17

    Thanks so much for the very helpful info! Am switching to organic after reading that!

  11. Fiorella | 24th Jun 17

    Please any brand of good organic coffee?

    • Gary Goodman | 26th Sep 17

      You can try Equal Exchange brand coffee.

  12. Chemex 101: Brewing Tips and Advice From a Coffee Novice | Downshiftology | 7th May 17

    […] what I can say is do pay the extra and buy organic coffee. Conventional coffee is one of the most heavily chemically treated foods in the world. So I choose quality over […]

  13. Jan | 28th Mar 17

    Can anyone recommend a great organic coffee?

  14. Laura | 20th Mar 17

    First cup of organic coffee.
    LOVE IT!!! Will never buy conventional again.

  15. Mads | 17th Feb 17

    Thank you for this!

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