More and more coffee people are expressing concern over the recent USDA ruling to tighten controls on certification of organic coffee. Among them, the highly respected folk over at Counter Culture Coffee. CC’s Kim Elena notes that:

This decision has implications for grower groups in the United States and abroad, affecting farmers growing crops from bananas to coffee. The time and services of a certifier are expensive, so if each farm in a co-op of one hundred farms needs inspection this year as opposed to just twenty farms last year, a grower group’s cost for organic certification will be five times as high this year. Can that group charge five times as much for their product this year? Will consumers pay five times the price for certified organic products?

Coffee is particularly sensitive to this ruling because the majority of certified organic coffee comes from small farms and co-ops in developing countries: the people who can least afford an increase in inspection costs.

And it would be shameful were I to overlook the efforts of the people at Royal Coffee — a top-tier green coffee importer. Royal’s Robert Fulmer was among the very first to sound the alarm:

Given a little careful reflection, I think this pending USDA action amounts to disastrous unintended consequences. As you know, small farmer groups are supplying the U.S. coffee industry with many great and interesting coffees from around the globe. From Timor, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico just to name a few. The U.S. Coffee Industry and American consumer has benefited considerably from these certified small farmer groups. But the benefits of organic certification go far beyond providing us with coffee.

Organic certification is often a keystone around which communities can organize. In my personal experience I have seen health clinics built in Timor, schools in Colombia, improvements in crop yield and income, better environmental practices, access to micro-loans and pre-crop-financing throughout the coffee growing world—all as a result of organic certification.

These farmers are on a playing field that will never be level. As far as I know, this USDA action comes without any consultation or input from the coffee industry. I think it is extremely important that the SCAA, the Pacific Coast Coffee Association and The Roaster’s Guild come out strongly in support of these small farmer groups…

Yeah… what he said.

The trained certifiers required to carry-out the hundred-fold (maybe thousand-fold?) increase in annual certifications simply don’t exist. Even should a crash training program take place, small-holder coffee farms on the whole can’t afford to pay for annual inspections, nor can their cooperatives. As it stands, then, thousands upon thousands of farmers who’ve worked for years to attain organic certification will lose it — many of them without ever having realized a penny of income for their efforts.

And as to the consumer side of things… well, you can pretty much forget about any sort of selection. Unless your favorite organic bean comes from a large, colonial-style coffee plantation, it’s probably going to go the way of the dinosaur. And all at the stroke of a pen by yet another US government organization that’s seemingly out of touch with reality.

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