Under specialty “green” labels at places like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, organic beans and brews have become cheaper and more widely available recently. Last year, North American sales reached a record $1.3 billion, a 13 percent increase from 2007.
Major retailers already struggle to fill demand. Seattle-based Starbucks Corp., the world’s largest coffeehouse company, said just 3 percent of its coffee purchases, about 10 million pounds, were organic last year.
“Our purchases of certified organic coffee are limited due to the limited quantities available worldwide and the constraints of the organic certification system for farmers,” the company said in a statement issued in response to questions.
The expense of organic certifications, composts, and the losses incurred by pests and other factors mean growing organic costs about 15 percent more than growing conventional crops, Mr. Haggar says. More notably, by using chemical fertilizers a farmer can coax about 485 pounds of coffee out of one acre, versus 285 pounds per acre on an organic farm, according to CATIE.
With coffee prices rebounding from the historic lows of a decade ago, there’s little financial reason for growers to continue raising organic beans.
“I can sell [nonorganic coffee] to a coyote [middle man] for around the same price [as organic], a little less, and I can use whatever I want on the coffee plants – fertilizers I can buy, pesticides,” says Jose Perez, who stopped growing organic coffee on his three-acre farm in Guatemala last year. “I can grow a lot more this way.”
Mr. Perez is an example of what World Bank coffee researcher Daniele Giovannucci says was an empty promise made to growers. “Many farmers ... were promised economic benefits by those that wanted them to convert, which was a very bad idea,” he writes in an e-mail, “and [this trend] is bearing the fruit in their dissatisfaction.”