The short answer is that like most things, both drinks can be organic, but not all tea and coffee brands are organic.
What makes tea and coffee organic?
An organic product is something that is grown in natural soil without the addition of artificial fertilisers and chemicals. In addition, the crops are not treated with synthetic insecticides, pesticides or fungicides.
This does not mean that the organic coffee you use in your espresso machine are produced without using fertilisers, insecticides or pesticides. Instead with organic farming methods, any substances used are themselves organic or natural, so no harmful chemicals make their way into our drink.
The environment also wins out as no artificial chemicals are released into the air that every living thing breathes, and nothing harmful seeps into the soil.
Organic farming methods
Organic farming methods involve maintaining the natural richness of the soil and using fertilisers such as natural bird droppings, leaf litter, chicken manure or soil enriched with natural compost and a layer of mulch for moisture protection and to provide extra nutrients. In addition, where and under what conditions tea and coffee are grown has a part to play in organic farming.
The natural habitat for coffee trees is shade. So they naturally grow at higher altitudes and in sparsely populated natural rain forest. This is a biodiverse environment with rich soil and where pests are not an issue. The soil is rich from natural fertilisers such as bird dropping and leaves and any would be pests are kept under control by pest predators such as birds and lizards, and there is no need for the use of any pesticides.
Coffee doesn’t get more organic than that for your grinder!
Coffee & Tea grown on small farms and plantations promoting biodiversity (by allowing wildlife and local plants to grow alongside the crop they are farming), are also less likely to need chemical solutions and are therefore ‘organic’ on this aspect.
If we think about it, all farming was once organic, but with the pressure nowadays on increased production, efficiency and profit, this has changed. Coffee and tea are big business and many farms are big too – all trying to get your attentions so you use their beans for your morning pour-over coffee. Large plantations focused solely on intensive growing of tea or coffee rather than a mix of crops, have increased in number. This means that pests can increase to a point where they are out of control and more artificial fertilisers and pesticides are a necessity.
Organic farming is labour intensive as machine use is kept to a minimum. This makes organic farming more labour intensive. Again this poses challenges for large producers. Unsurprisingly then, most (but not all) organic tea and coffee comes from small farms and small scale specialty growers rather than large producers, before finding its way to your drip coffee maker. Many small farms are organic out of necessity as farmers often cannot afford the cost of fertilisers and pesticides. Indeed many go out of business as it is hard to earn a living.
Most organic coffee is grown at higher altitudes in the shade of lush forests. After all, coffee is naturally a shade loving tree. However, a hybrid of the coffee plant that thrives in the sun has been cultivated and now many farms operate outside the forests and produce sun grown coffee. Sun grown coffee may be easier to tend and harvest, but there is a downside. While shade-grown coffee trees can last for 30 years or more, sun-grown must be replaced every 15 years or less. In addition, sun grown coffee needs more chemical input and depletes the soil. So sun grown coffee may well be organic, but it is out of line with Vegan and Vegetarian philosophies – whether that is something you want from your single-serve coffee each morning is entirely down to personal choice.
Most organic tea also comes from small farms and co-operatives on rolling hills that require terracing, rather than the large plantations that take up vast areas of land. These larger tea plantations make tending and harvesting the tea crop easier and increase the mass production of tea. However, they are less likely to be organic.
How do I recognise and buy Organic coffee and tea?
As we know organic tea and coffee often (but not exclusively) comes from smaller farms, how can we identify it in the shops and how can we be sure what we buy is truly organic?
Firstly what we can look for is coffee or tea that is from small speciality growers and responsibly farmed. Packs that state they are from small batch/micro lot brands, dedicated to quality not quantity are mostly organic.
We can also look for those that are grown, handled and processed end to end by the same (usually smaller producers). After all to be truly organic, any process the tea or coffee goes through before it reaches us (for example grinding or roasting coffee), should be dedicated to only organic products. In the case of coffee, we can also look for shade grown brands, as we know sun grown coffee is likely to need much more chemical intervention during cultivation.
If all this sounds a little hit and miss, the good news is that as the popularity of organic food and drink has increased, more producers and manufacturers have caught up with demands and the brands we buy now, have clear information and statements on the pack that meet our new requirements, including coffee for vegans and vegetarians.
In addition, there are numerous accredited agencies that inspect farms and provide certification that a crop is organic. Several government and non-governmental bodies across the world have inspection programmes and recognisable logos that show whether or not the products with these labels comply with stringent organic growing conditions. These programmes cover all sizes of farms, not just small ones and usually require annual certification.
Look for coffee and tea labelled:
- Equal Exchange
- IFOAM (international Federation Of Organic Agriculture Movement)
- USDA (United Department of Agriculture) NOP (National Organic Programme)
- Other countries equivalent to USDA or state certification – for example
The organic accreditation goes beyond just smaller growers or even the growth of the crop itself. It covers in as far as it is possible to inspect every step, the whole process organic tea and coffee go through before they reach us.
OK, we can easily find organic coffee and tea. This goes quite a way to establishing the drinks environmentally friendly credentials, but there is a way to go yet and a lot of this also lands at our own front door, especially how we recycle and reuse the waste from our morning cup of Joe – we all need to take responsibility for the Planet and the future of our children.
When we buy coffee and tea with labels from the major agencies such as USDA for example, we as buyers can trust the product is organic. The USDA NOP (National Organic Program) has different levels of ‘organic’, from 70 to 100%, to cover cultivation, processes and packaging.