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

Latin America produces an estimated 75 percent of the world's organic coffee. But the economic benefits many small farmers were promised if they converted to organic haven't materialized.

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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.

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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.”

Organic demanded, but not at higher price

A decade ago, with coffee prices bottoming out and at the urging of some development organizations, tens of thousands of Latin American farmers began to convert their fields to producers of certified organic products. To do so, farmers followed strict rules set by a handful of agencies, including the US Department of Agriculture, that require soil be free of pesticides and chemical fertilizers for three years.

After making the conversion, they would be supplying a growing market that paid as much as 40 percent more. They would also be preserving their land. Conventional farms apply as much as 250 pounds of chemical fertilizers on every acre. “And they use tons of pesticides that are harmful to human health and affect biodiversity,” Haggar says. Organic farms, rich with flora, trap more carbon than their conventional counterparts, an important benefit for a crop threatened by climate change.

However, the farmers don’t receive the financial benefits of organic coffee until they are certified, meaning they were expected to absorb extra costs for three years. Many went into debt. Now, they are quitting organic farming.

“When you’re a small organization like ours, it’s already difficult to survive against the big growers. So when you lose members, it hurts you a lot,” says Marvin Lopez, manager of APODIP, a Coban, Guatemala-based cooperative of organic growers that lost half of its members, about 380, last year.

“I get calls every day from buyers in the US who are asking me if I have any organic [coffee] available. But then I tell them the price, $2 per pound,” De Leon says, pointing to an e-mail with an offer to pay $1.50 per pound. “So, the coffee just sits there.”