Organic certification is and has been for some time, a concern for health conscious consumers wanting to purchase a higher quality ‘natural’ product as well as wanting to do their part for the environment. A question that often arises is that of Ethiopian organic coffee. It is true that organic certification is something of a rarity in Ethiopia compared with other coffee producing countries, but this does not mean it is not organic or natural coffee by definition.
First we must understand that the coffee farming system in Ethiopia differs to many other countries with the vast majority of farmers being smallholders with 1 – 3 Hectares of land instead of sprawling irrigated estates. The coffee is then bought by a washing station and it is mixed up with the coffee of other farmers in the area before processing.
This presents two main problems. Firstly, no average individual farmer is going to be organically certified – least of all because of the time it would take and cost to them, but because even if they are certified, they will get no premium from the local washing station where their coffee is lost in tons of uncertified coffees. Some washing stations and cooperatives however do get organic certification and work with the local member farmers so that they are also certified as a whole.
This does not however mean that Ethiopian coffees are not almost always organic by nature. Because of the size of most farms it will cost farmers more than it is worth to purchase fertilizers. Instead, many washing stations produce an organic fertilizer from the discarded coffee pulp (you can read our article on that here) – this is then distributed locally. Coffee in Ethiopia has historically been wild and left to grow without being pruned and this is still the case on most smallholder farms. It is the size of the farms and the difficulty of traceability in Ethiopia that halts organic certification.
Interestingly, Organic certification as a health issue (not wanting to eat vegetables and fruits covered in poisonous fertilizer and pesticides) is not overly relevant for coffee as the fruit is stripped off the coffee (at the very beginning of honey and washed processes) before it is then roasted and then brewed! Food for thought.