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Organic coffee: Why Latin America's farmers are abandoning it

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Farmers have returned to the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that increase production, albeit at a cost to the environment. Although organic still pays a premium of as much as 25 percent over conventional coffee, it’s not enough to cover the added cost of production and make up for the smaller yields. For consumers, the defections threaten to make the coffee harder to find.

“This is a critical point for organic coffee. It was starting to make the conversion to the mainstream,” says Jeremy Haggar, who oversees the research for CATIE. If farmers continue to abandon organic coffee, “prices will definitely go up and it will return to being a niche product.”

'Promised economic benefits'

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.

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