07th March 2018
The organic movement has become an increasingly important part of worldwide food production and consumption. Its appeal isn’t difficult to understand. For a start, organic foods are grown without the use of chemicals, which can be harmful when consumed. Organic food producers also typically follow the principles of ethical production and sustainability. As part of our new series of articles looking at the health aspects of coffee, we are going to analyse the benefits—to the consumer, producers and environment—of organic coffee.
We’ll start with a question: why buy organic?
– Your health:
To begin with, the bad news…
The use of chemicals, such as pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, has been widespread in farming for decades. Several prominent studies (including those by the World Health Organization and the Environmental Protection Agency have determined that the use of these chemicals—particularly pesticides such as: fungicides, herbicides, insecticides—can be a carcinogenic risk to the public. Plants grown using chemicals can also interfere with hormonal and immune-system functions. Not only that, there are further claims that frequent consumption can cause damage to the reproductive and nervous systems, and have been linked with developmental and behavioural abnormalities in the babies of pregnant women exposed to them. Research conducted by University of California, Santa Barbara, compared half a million birth records of people born in the San Joaquin Valley between 1997 and 2011. The research concluded that in areas with the highest level of pesticide usage in crops, the chance of giving birth prematurely rose by about 8% and the chance of a birth abnormality increased by around 9%*. And, unfortunately, many of these same chemicals are used in coffee farming.
All sounds pretty serious, right? Right.
Well, the good news is that there is a gradual revolution happening—an organic revolution. One of the main positives is that 100% certified organic coffee not only contains antioxidants, which help protection from cell damages, but also vitamins and minerals that can boost the immune system. A research team writing for the British Journal of Nutrition reported, in 2014, that crops which are grown organically were not only less likely to contain detectable levels of pesticides but, because of differences in fertilisation approach, were also 48% less likely to test positive for toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium, that can accumulate in the liver and kidneys causing harm to people who have consumed them.
And there’s more…several studies, including one published in ‘Plant Foods for Human Nutrition’ found the antioxidants in coffee helped to decrease oxidative stress in the human body, therefore potentially reducing the risk of diseases like cancer. Another study, from the ‘Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism,’ found coffee may help to prevent diabetes, if consumed after meals, by lowering blood sugar levels.
It seems pretty clear that if you want to significantly reduce the risk of consuming these potentially harmful chemicals and look after your health, organic coffee is definitely the way to go. But what about the people who grow the coffee? How does producing our favourite drink impact their health?
– Farmers’ health:
The International Coffee Organization estimates that around 25 million small-scale coffee farmers and their families, across 52 countries, produce 70% of the world’s coffee7. The pressures on these farmers (ranging from high production costs and low crop yields, to the effects of climate change) mean that many use chemical fertilisers to help stimulate crop growth. However, coming into regular contact with these chemicals can have a detrimental impact on the health of the farmers. Researchers from the University of Reading, interviewed 81 farmers about the symptoms they had suffered from direct contact with pesticides. The researchers discovered that:
“The most frequently reported symptom was skin irritation, which is due to the chemicals entering into contact with the farmer’s bare skin. Dizziness, headaches, difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest were also reported by more than a fifth of the interviewed farmers.”
In spite of these health factors, many small-scale coffee farmers are still using fertilizers, in an attempt to compete with the low prices set by the larger conventional plantations. In fact, some small-scale farmers, who are producing organic coffee, make less than their production costs and, as a consequence, end up having to sell their land to larger rival plantations.
What can be done to make the market fairer for these farmers?
Well, for a start, there is the Fair Trade Foundation —set up to help producers, particularly those in developing countries, to achieve better trading conditions, while also promoting sustainable farming. While not all organic coffee is also certified by Fair Trade, the two movements are closely linked. In an effort to redress the balance and help secure the livelihood of organic coffee growers, Fair Trade cooperatives pay a higher, guaranteed price to farmers who work under their schemes. This movement is leading to an increase in the market share of organic coffee which, according to a report from Technavio, is expected to grow by up to 13% in the next four years. This is good news for the people growing coffee, and may prompt other farmers to move towards organic.
While we are looking at coffee production, we thought it was worth analysing the health impact of another vital element: mother nature…
– Environmental health:
The third major consideration, when choosing which coffee to buy, is the effect of coffee production on the environment. It’s not only the use of pesticides used in coffee production that is having an impact on the environments in coffee-growing regions. The issue of deforestation in the rainforests around coffee plantations has been well-documented. Again, it is the relentless market demand for coffee which is driving this issue. Farmers throughout South America, Africa and southeast Asia are removing trees and plants in an attempt to create full-sun coffee plantations. Since the 1970s full-sun coffee growing has been a prevalent part of the coffee production. The intention behind this technique is to increase crop yields. And while sun-grown coffee has been proven to produce higher yields, leading to greater profitability for the farmers, it also has an adverse impact on the ecosystem, and often the coffee quality too. Part of the problem is that, in many regions, particularly in tropical rainforests, the majority of nutrients aren’t stored in the soil but, instead, in the trees and surrounding plant life. Across Central America, the sun-grown coffee market has led to a 2.5 million acre loss of rainforest.
However, the majority of organic coffee is grown under natural conditions. So, if the production area is shaded by trees then the coffee will be shade-grown. These forests, their wild plants and animals inhabitants, help sustain soil-fertility and maintain the unique regional ecosystems. Forested farms are also better equipped to handle the irregular weather conditions that occur as a consequence of climate change. This makes them a safer long-term investment for farmers. The biodiversity of these organic ecosystems, provide sufficient levels of plant nutrition, which helps eliminates the need for chemical pesticides and herbicides. Sounds like good news to us!
What is clear is that buying organic coffee has many health benefits. It might cost a little more, but the benefits—not only to your health, but the health of the farmers and to the environment—far outweigh the financial cost. So next time you are pondering which coffee to buy, look for one which is Fair Trade or 100% certified organic.