What Is Organic Coffee and How Is It Grown?

When you drink a cup of regular coffee you may be getting more than just coffee in your cup. Years ago the Australian Food Authority tested regular coffee and found more than 130 different impurities in a regular cup of Java. The way to get around this issue is to drink organic coffee. But, what is organic coffee and how is it grown so as to avoid all of those impurities? Healthy organic coffee is grown using sustainable agricultural practices.

Healthy organic coffee has been around for a long, long time. Unfortunately in the modern era the use of pesticides and herbicides has entered the picture in growing many crops, including otherwise healthy organic coffee. Although non-organic contaminants do not necessarily reduce the beneficial health effects of a healthy cup of organic coffee the non-organic contaminants cause problems of their own.

A study by the Australian Food Standards Authority revealed that as many as 133 contaminants may be in a cup of commercially available coffee. These contaminants include metals such as aluminum and zinc, pesticide residues, ochratoxin A, acrylamide, furan, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Some polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are found to cause cancer.

The way organic coffee farmers grow coffee is often in the shade which the most natural way to grow coffee. Shade grown coffee also allows for preservation of forest habitat for wildlife or for growing another crop such as plantain side by side with the coffee. In order to be sure that what you are getting is indeed organic coffee look for proof of organic coffee certification.

Organic coffee differs from regular coffee in several aspects. The soil in which organic coffee is grown must have been verified as free from prohibited substances for at least three years. In addition there must be distinct boundaries between land on which organic coffee is grown and land where pesticides, herbicides, and prohibited chemical fertilizers are used. This guarantees that drift of substances sprayed or otherwise applied on adjacent land will not contaminate the organic plot of land. Organic coffee certification includes the adherence to a specific and verifiable plan for all practices and procedures from planting to crop maintenance, to harvest, de-husking, bagging, transport, roasting, packaging, and final transport.

For coffee to be certified organic someone needs to check the soil on the coffee farm and review processes to insure compliance with organic standards. The gold standard is USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certification. Because the only coffee grown in the USA is in Hawaii the USDA delegates the foot work of certification to agencies such as Bio Latina in Latin America. Other reliable certifications are UTZ, Rainforest Alliance and the Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly certification. This last one helps maintain habitat for migratory birds. We wrote about this in our article Coffee for the Birds.

Many birds that spend their summers in the USA spend their winters in Mexico, Central America and even South America. They live in mountain forests in these regions, the same places that coffee is grown. As sun-tolerant varieties of coffee have been developed, coffee farmers have cut down upland tropical forests and planted coffee. They may have planted the occasional plantain to help prevent wholesale soil erosion but have removed the habitat for local and migratory birds. The question is, if you want to limit your coffee purchases to growers who maintain bird-friendly habitats how do you proceed? The author mentions Rainforest Alliance, USDA Certified, shade grown, Fair Trade and sustainable and asks “what does it all mean?” In the end it turns out that the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has the strictest certification followed by Rainforest Alliance for coffee farming that is kindest to the birds.

Organic coffee is pure coffee without unwanted impurities. How it is grown is the old fashioned way with natural mulch as fertilizer and attention to protecting the water table.

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