Grounds for Labeling

[This article was previously published in the fall issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]

by Linley Dixon, PhD
Senior Scientist at The Cornucopia Institute

Source: Adobe Stock

Straight, with sugar, milk, or honey. Regardless of how you take it, Americans love their coffee. At an average of two cups a day, the U.S. is only 22nd in terms of world consumption, with Scandinavian countries topping the chart at 2-3 times this amount.

As avid coffee consumers, how should we be sourcing our beans to minimize environmental impact and pesticides and support ecologically diverse farms?

Considering coffee is a tropical crop, our usual recommendation to “know your farmer” is largely unworkable. Instead, we must depend on the many certifications that decorate coffee packages, including organic, fair-trade, Rainforest Alliance, shade-grown, and even certified bird friendly! But with so many labels to choose from, how do we know which is best?

Many harmful chemicals that are banned in the U.S. are still widely used in developing countries on coffee plants. In addition to easing consumer concerns over chemical residues, buying USDA certified organic coffee mitigates exposure of farm workers who might not be trained for pesticide applications or have access to protective wear.

Some of the most common pesticides used on coffee include chlorpyrifos, disulfoton, and methyl parathion, all highly toxic organophosphate insecticides used to control cherry borers and leaf miners, among other insects.

Organophosphate insecticides are among the worst chemicals used in conventional farming in terms of impact on human health and the environment. The EPA banned most household uses in 2000 because organophosphates have caused human deaths and are linked to birth defects. They are also extremely toxic to birds, aquatic organisms, and bees and are known to bioaccumulate (increase in concentration as they move up the food chain).

The widespread use of organophosphates in conventional coffee production is convincing enough to convert to USDA certified organic, but you can do more.

Research has shown that coffee plants have fewer pests when they are grown in the shade, likely because of the presence of insect-eating birds in the overhead trees. Since organic doesn’t always mean shade-grown, what additional labels should we be looking for?

The Rainforest Alliance seal on coffee has become widely respected because, like organic certification, operations are subject to on-farm inspections. Similar to organic, they ban toxic chemical use and assess environmental impacts such as biodiversity.

However, Rainforest Alliance goes beyond organic standards to include shade-grown and climate change adaptations as well as social issues (e.g., working conditions, child labor, community involvement, and fair wages).

While Rainforest Alliance doesn’t ban as many chemicals as USDA organic certification, it does much more when it comes to farmer training and education, enabling farmers to shift to more sustainable production practices.

Similar to USDA certified organic, Rainforest Alliance does NOT offer producers minimum prices, leaving them vulnerable to market price fluctuations. Fair Trade certifications are meant to ensure fair prices.

The Rainforest Alliance label is allowed on products that contain as little as 30% certified beans, but companies that are certified must agree to move towards 100% certified beans over time. Be sure to check the seal for percentage of certified content.

Another option, the Smithsonian Bird Friendly Habitat label, requires farms to be both certified USDA organic and meet very specific shade-grown requirements, including trees of different heights and species.

Labels inevitably carry with them added bureaucracy, require continuous independent monitoring, and lead to questions over who exactly is profiting from the consequent higher retail costs.

Conscientious consumers hope the extra money spent goes toward the farmers who incur additional costs to bring them a product that is better for them and the environment.

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