Organic coffee in jeopardy

I just learned of this story via the Counter Culture Coffee weblog. A recent ruling by the USDA threatens organic certification for co-ops of coffee growers and farmers of other crops. Organic certification of a farm requires expensive inspection each year. This isn’t practical for the numerous small farmers in developing counties, so a regime of partial inspection has been allowed in place of inspection of every individual farm. Salon sums it up:

Until now, however, there has been a special provision for “grower groups” that made certification practical for farmer cooperatives in the Third World, whose memberships can reach into the thousands. Because of the immense logistical demands of inspecting every farm in a large co-op, a compromise was reached: An organic inspector would randomly visit only a portion of the group’s farms each year, usually 20 percent. The grower groups would then self-police the remainder through a manager who made sure they followed the rules. The following year, an inspector would return and visit another 20 percent of the farms. After five years, all farms would be inspected.

The new ruling appears to eliminate this compromise, requiring every farm to be inspected. This probably means that lots of coffee growers are going to give up on certification and return to selling their beans on the commodity market, a loss both to farmers and to coffee lovers. For many crops it’s also probably going to give an advantage to big plantations. I have nothing against big farms, but I doubt most organic consumers want their purchases to have this effect.

This is the problem with relying on the USDA for organic certification. The agency has succeeded admirably in branding the organic label, but ultimately the agency represents the interests of American agriculture, not of consumers. A consumer-centric certification agency would never make a ruling like this. I have to wonder about the internal politics that led to this decision.

Supposedly, the ruling came about in response to a discovery that a co-op in Mexico was violating organic standards. Perhaps some reform is in order, but eliminating co-op inspection seems like a huge overreaction. After all, no system of inspection is 100% accurate. The question the USDA should consider is not what kind of inspections get closest to 100% accuracy, but rather what trade-offs consumers are willing to make in order to support co-op farming. I feel confident that the vast majority of organic buyers would much rather accept a little uncertainty than cut small producers out of the market entirely.

Hopefully pressure from consumer groups will force the USDA to reconsider its decision. If not, alternative certification based on the reputation of private buyers, such as Intelligentsia’s Direct Trade label, might become the best alternative. These brands don’t have nearly the market power as organic certification does, but in the long run competing, private certification might prove much more effective than certification by government agency.

Update 4/19/07: Here’s a letter to sign.]

[Cross-posted at Smelling the Coffee.]


2 thoughts on “Organic coffee in jeopardy”

  1. We at Equal Exchange import organic, Fair Trade coffee, cocoa, tea and sugar from almost 30 small farmer co-ops around the world that stand to be slammed by this ruling. Therefore we are working with the National Organic Coalition to seek out co-signers for a letter that will be delivered to the USDA expressing our concern. The deadline to sign on is TUESDAY, APRIL 24th.

    Please visit the link below for more information and to sign on to the

    Thank you,
    Rodney North
    A Worker Co-operative Dedicated to Fair Trade

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