Western consumers increasingly prefer to buy products certified as Organic and/or Fairtrade. This inclination stems from increasing concern about the conditions under which food and agricultural commodities are produced. Organic certifications serve as assurance that products are produced with minimal amounts of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Ethical certifications such as Fair Trade, Utz and Rainforest Alliance require environmental, social, and economic sustainability as well as standards for workers and farmers’ well-being. However, working daily in the coffee industry leads us to ask a question about which the consumer is at times oblivious. Are these certifications actually beneficial to small holder coffee farmers?
Let’s run the numbers on certification using a co-op of growers typical to the ones we work with. This co-op may consist of up to 50 families/farmers each holding 250 coffee trees on their own plot of land. For the initial certification the co-op would have to pay 1000-2500 USD, plus travel of the certifying party, mitigation costs if any findings have to be corrected during the certification period. In the following years the co-op must pay with a re-certification fee of what may be 1000 USD per year. For the small holder farmers organized in such a way, such a large outlay of money is not financially feasible. Smallholder farmers need capital to build processing stations, replace aging and unproductive trees with new seedlings better suited to their geographic location, buy better fertilizer, and attend agronomy training so that they can produce coffee that is worth more. A consistent annual drain of money just for a certificate to state that they are being treated fairly or growing without pesticides would be more of a handicap than a benefit.
Larger co-ops, like those comprised of hundreds or even thousands of growers, and for profit corporations are best positioned to take advantage of certifications. While in some situations small holder farmers can form large co-ops that are actually able to finance certificates, it is still not an advantageous move for most of the growers we work with. With the money drain involved, only at large scales or with large amounts of working capital do certifications make sense.
Despite the lack of official certification, coffee by small holders may many times be grown organically. This is due to the simple fact that sometimes farmers are not able to afford the inputs needed to maximize productivity. We have come across smallholder farmers that do absolutely no tending to their trees and just harvest whatever ripens every year. Sometimes we run across coffee growers who have intercropped with other plants that need fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. For these, shifting to a monoculture coffee farm would deplete the soil and is not a sustainable option for these farmers. The best option for us in finding well-grown, not chemical saturated coffee is to work community by community, teaching better production methods with the end goal of foodstuffs free of chemical input.
When it comes to organic and pesticide-free, the certifications are moot for the roasted coffee consumer. Studies show that any volatile organic compounds that remain on the green bean are burned away in the first few minutes of the roasting process. You can read more about in two studies, one conducted in Germany in 1984 and the other conducted in Japan in 2012. The person who most deserves our concern is the farmer and residents of the growing regions who are exposed to the chemicals directly.
Mitigating the amount of chemicals that farmers work with is one of our goals. We strive for a direct relationship model that goes beyond what buyers think of as a direct trade or farm gate model. While our hope is to have all of our partner farmers using organic fertilizer and compost on multi-use permaculture plots that produce varied cash crops and food products, that is just not reality for most of our farmers.
We do, however, partner with them to increase capacity where needed and provide expertise. One village near us that we have partnered with contains about 30 farming families that process their own coffee at varying quality levels. We buy all of their coffee which meets our high quality standards and are able to sell all of it on the local market, earmarking the profits to be reinvested in this village. The goal of that money is to buy processing equipment and set up a real wash station with them so that all the farmers in this village can reap the benefits of growing high-quality coffee. The money that could go to obtaining a certificate is doing better work, helping the farmers grow coffee that is better for both them and the people who buy it.
While we do not, at this time, offer a coffee that has a cool green and white logo on it, or a frog, or a bunch of letters, we offer what we think is much more. When you buy Bright Java coffee you help ensure that there is someone working at origin, making long term positive impact in the livelihoods of small holder coffee farmers in Southeast Asia.