In order to be labeled “organic”, coffee must adhere to rigorous standards in agricultural production, handling, and roasting. The “Organic Foods Production Act” of 1990 is the federal law which governs U.S. organic food standards and labeling. This regulation declares that organic foodstuffs must be grown and processed according to two basic principles; no prohibited substances can be used, and a sustainable organic plan must be implemented. The myriad of details that constitute the regulations have been developed by the organic community over many years of exhaustive, expert debate.

The prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This is especially important in less developed countries where there is little or no protection for the farmers who apply the pesticides. As a matter of fact, many of the pesticides used are banned in developed countries. Unfortunately, damage to the environment and people is hard to calculate. We can say with certainty, though, that these materials are not only toxic but can also be mutagenic and increase immune deficiency, even at low doses. When synthetic pesticides are prohibited, it allows for the development of bio-rational controls such as commercial insectaries that rear a wasp parasite that controls coffee borer (broca). This is very different from so called “green seals” which allow an undefined “restricted” use of synthetic pesticides.

The organic farm plan consists of an organic management system. In the case of coffee, this system would include the use of shade grown trees that provide ecological niches for beneficial insects, nitrogen for the coffee, and erosion control to name just a few benefits. Under organic management, all the coffee cherries would be composted along with other agricultural waste. Ideally bananas or other food crops would be inter-planted with the coffee. The role of the organic inspector is to see that the organic plan outlined in the application is implemented on the farm. In succeeding years, improvements in the management system will be expected.

The certification agent based on the handling plan presented by the importing coffee companies must also verify the transport, handling, roasting, and packing of the coffee. The organic seal guarantees that the coffee was grown according to ecological principles and its integrity protected en-route.