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Is Organic Coffee Really Different?

Whether or not you seek out organic coffee beans, you're probably familiar with the concept. As with organic produce, coffee that's certified organic is grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. However, there's a lot more to organic coffee than that simple explanation may imply.

Shade to Sun 
People tend to think of organic food as a recent trend, but, according to Ruta Maya Coffee Company, it's more of a return to the way that coffee used to be grown. Most wild coffee plants can't handle exposure to direct sunlight, so when they were first planted and tended to by people, they were grown in the shade of fruit trees, which kept the soil well-fed. However, when varieties of coffee that could handle sun exposure were developed in the 20th century, synthetic fertilizers came into use to provide the nutrients that the plants used to get from nearby trees. To increase yields even further, more effective pesticides were also developed.

The growth of what's now sometimes called "conventional" coffee production, using synthetic additives and growing plants in sun-exposed areas, wasn't without benefit to farmers. Higher yields led to higher profits, at least initially, until the method became the norm. It also meant that farmers didn't have to traipse through dense forests to pick beans. The process was so successful that, according to coffee importer Equal Exchange, many areas were cleared of trees to make room for more coffee farms.

Growing Concerns 
This led to higher production for coffee plantations, but also harmed the soil in the long run. Without tree cover, coffee plants and the land they were grown on were left exposed to direct rainfall, which eroded the soil and washed away nutrients. Many pesticides that were used on coffee plants, including the notorious DDT, killed organisms living in the soil and animals living nearby, some of which had been helping to keep insect populations down themselves. In a way, these chemicals created an environment where coffee couldn't be grown effectively without them.

Many people are also concerned that the use of synthetic chemicals could make coffee unsafe. According to the International Trade Centre, coffee beans almost never retain any harmful chemicals, so the threat to consumers is unclear. However, for those working in environments where large amounts of these chemicals are being used, it may be a different story.

The first record of modern organic coffee farming was in 1967, at the Finca Irlanda plantation in Chiapas, Mexico. Since then, organic coffee has grown from an oddity to a force helping to drive the coffee market. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic coffee in the U.S. and Canada alone reached $1.3 billion in 2008.