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So, What Exactly Is Organic Coffee?

... And why the certification matters.

by Groundwork Coffee Co. | April 22, 2020

Organic is at the forefront of all we do at Groundwork Coffee, from buying only certified organic (ie pesticide-, herbicide-, fungicide-free) coffees to roasting those same coffees using our industry-leading, solar-powered technology. But what does it mean to operate a certified organic coffee company? How does our commitment to organic extend after sourcing the coffees? And why should you care about purchasing organic? In celebration of Earth Day 2020, let us break it down.

What are organic coffee benefits?

As one of the first certified organic coffee roasters in Southern California, we've been pioneering organic, relationship-based, and sustainable coffee sourcing since the early '90s. When it comes to pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, coffee is the third-most sprayed agricultural crop in the world. Most major coffee producers coat their crops with a witches’ brew of toxic chemicals to fight intruders and increase crop yields.

On organic coffee health benefits: "... the question is not whether these chemicals make their way into your morning cup. The real question is what do these chemicals do to the environment and communities where they are sprayed?"

That said, the question is not whether these chemicals make their way into your morning cup. At peak temperatures above 450 degrees, the roasting process will most likely burn off any residual chemicals. The real question is what do these chemicals do to the environment and communities where they are sprayed? The data is clear; the effects on groundwater, nearby crops, and peoples' health are well documented.

In addition to being better for those growing our coffee, we believe that a commitment to organic simply produces better coffee. Without the advantage of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, coffee farmers have to take better care of their trees to experience the same quality and crop yields per tree as their non-organic competitors. Organic farmers have to choose viable soil and water sources in order to avoid adding synthetic nutrients later. They have to grow their coffee at higher altitudes, which dissuades many insects and parasitic plants, resulting in a slower-developing, more complex-flavored coffee bean.

Organic farmers have to accept a trade-off of lower overall yield in exchange for a more biodiverse habitat. In return, coffee roasters and their customers pay them a premium to continue the practice. Considering the benefits of organic coffee, we think it’s money well spent.

How does one become certified organic?

Becoming and maintaining an organic coffee certification doesn’t stop at the farm. Keeping an organic coffee certified requires that it never leaves the possession of a certified chain of custody. That means everyone, from farm to roaster, is certified organic.

A farm must abstain from the use of any prohibited substances for at least three years along with showing distinct boundaries between non-organic land with buffer zones to prevent drift from pesticides and fertilizers being used on nearby crops. Once a coffee is harvested, producers must ensure that only coffee from the certified organic land is harvested (this is where those buffer zones come in handy) and that any container or bag being used has not previously contained or been treated with prohibited substances.

All facilities used in processing must also be certified organic, segregating organic product from non-organic products. Moreover, organic certification requires a waste management plan to ensure that the vast quantities of water used in processing and the solid plant waste can be disposed of in a sustainable way, often incorporated back into the plantation as compost. Groundwork continues this organic supply chain by maintaining an exclusively organic certified roasting facility, free from contamination and commingling.

The role of organic in sustainability

Organic is only a portion of our commitment to sustainability and producing coffee that is better for you and the environment. At our North Hollywood roastery, over 100 solar panels cover the structure’s roof, drawing enough energy to power the entire building. These Sunpower PV modules are the most efficient panels commercially available and will generate more than 52,000 kilowatts of clean, solar energy each year and are designed to work efficiently even on cloudy days.

In 2011, we installed a unique hybrid/gas electric coffee roaster that utilizes an ultra-low NOx power burner. This allows for the roaster and catalytic oxidizer to be heated by electrical elements tied directly from the power generated by the solar panels. The result is Groundwork’s roaster has one of the smallest carbon footprints in the entire coffee industry.

From the ground up, we’re always looking for new ways to bring you exceptional coffee and tea with as little environmental footprint as possible. We know organic matters and our commitment will continue in 2020 and beyond.