Good Food Awards: What Went Wrong

Good Food Awards: What Went Wrong

Last week we ran a leaked email from the founder of the Good Food Awards.

The Good Food Awards are proud to celebrate the 22 Finalist coffees that stood out amongst 161 peers in the first annual Good Food Awards tasting. We realize that while each is exceptional in terms of taste, some do not fully meet the criteria laid forth in the entry form for becoming an Award Winners 2011: free of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and GMOs.

Why did so many roasters not follow the rules laid out by the GFA? Our exclusive Good Food Awards coverage continues with an email from an anonymous insider detailing what went down and why so many prominent roasters have been disqualified. The information contained from this point forward in no way represents the legally actionable entity of, nor should it result in us being banned in perpetuity from the Whole Foods cold item buffet.

Sprudge Editors,

The following is the result of research and investigation, including conversations with various individuals.

In 2008, an event was produced called “Slow Food Nation,” by a group called Seedling Projects.  A few coffee professionals were engaged to curate the coffee pavilion at this event. By all accounts, the coffee pavilion was a great success, attracting and engaging foodies and coffee enthusiasts alike. Not long after, certain individuals involved in that coffee pavilion were invited to take part in a new project, called the “Good Food Awards,” also produced by Seedling Projects. Those people were: Andrew Barnett (Ecco Caffe), Brent Fortune (Crema Bakery), Eileen Hassi (Ritual Coffee), and Tony Konecny ( blog).

The GFA apparently chose not to make organic certification a requirement for entry. The original published rules for GFA coffee included the phrase, “free of pesticides, herbicides and GMOs“. GMO refers to Genetically Modified Organism, which here means crops that are not the result of genetic manipulation. Perhaps the most common GMO is known as “bt-corn,” which is resistant to certain insects but is (thus far) known as being safe for animal and human consumption. GMO continues to be controversial. Interestingly enough, as a side note, certified organic coffees actually allow the usage of certain pesticides and herbicides. If you hold the standard to the original wording, no coffee of any kind sold anywhere in the world would qualify. The only exception would be those picked from “wildcrafted” coffee, growing wild in places like Ethiopia, though that would be hard to “certify.”

Shortly after the initial press releases about the Good Food Awards, coffee roasters around the country were contacted and encouraged to enter. Many of the roasters who supply to Whole Foods were encouraged to enter by Whole Foods itself. Multiple sources have reported that the sustainability aspects of GFA were downplayed during that recruiting. The phrase “Just send your best coffee” was quoted multiple times.

Coffees were submitted and a team assembled to evaluate them. Included on that team were Mette-Marie Hansen (now with 49th Parallel), Peter Giuliano (Counter Culture), Andi Trindle (Atlantic Specialty), Jason Long (Cafe Imports), George Howell (GHH/Terroir), Chris Davidson (Atlas Imports), and Willem Boot (Boot Consulting/Hi-Q). Coffees were cupped and scored, and at that cupping event there was some informal discussion about whether or not the coffees there would qualify as sustainable, according to the Good Food Awards criteria, mostly because the cuppers tasted what would indeed prove to be coffees from Kenya and Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda, which are well-known by those “in the know” as using synthetic inputs during growing and cultivation.

In and around November 1st, five finalists from each of the five regions were contacted over the phone, notifying them that their coffee had been chosen as a finalist. A preliminary set of questions were asked of each finalist roaster about the sustainability of their coffee, ostensibly to fulfill the sustainability requirement. The GFA asked the roasters if they could “certify that their coffees were free of pesticides, herbicides, and GMO’s.” There was also an accompanying question that asked if the roaster could “certify” fairness in trade. Prior to any controversy, one participant notified the GFA organizers that her finalist Kenyan coffee would likely not meet the stated criteria and that in fact most Kenyan coffees would not either.

As many Sprudge readers know, the vast majority of Kenyan coffee farmers use a great deal of chemical inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc.) during growing and cultivation. With rare exception, this is the case with most coffee growing that is not certified organic. Sarah Weiner from Seedling Projects forwarded the email to Andrew Barnett, who then forwarded it to Peter Giuliano (Counter Culture Coffee) and Geoff Watts (Intelligentsia). This set off a chain of emails among a number of people, who debated the issue thoroughly.

In mid-November, the GFA organizers determined that Kenyan coffees would be allowed to remain finalists, but would be disqualified from actually winning their region. As of the date of the publishing of this article, this informant is aware of no decision regarding Hacienda La Esmeralda or the other submitted coffees. Around the same time, the GFA started to use new wording: “free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.” “Synthetic” had not been used previously. Also, the GFA organizers began to state in correspondence that the finalists had only been evaluated for “tastiness.

On November 26, 2010, published an internal email from the GFA stating their position on the issue. Winners are scheduled to be announced January 14th, 2011.

So what does this all mean?

Sustainability is an issue that has been consistently glossed-over in our specialty coffee industry. The GFA set criteria that demonstrates some degree of ignorance about the realities of coffee production. The GFA did not just require organic certification. Though this informant is interested to know why, the assumption is that “organic” was deemed too politically charged or otherwise controversial or perhaps limiting. The original wording “free of pesticides, herbicides, and GMO’s,” disqualifies almost every coffee known to mankind, and certainly every coffee that was submitted to the GFA.

The GFA coffee committee, supposedly made up of coffee experts, could or should have helped the GFA organizers to revise their criteria. Instead, the GFA coffee committee, for one reason or another, appears to have basically pretended that the sustainability criteria didn’t exist at all.

It has been circulated that certain roasters who submitted coffees to the GFA (including the Kenyan coffees) claim that the GFA coffee committee representative who contacted them told some of them to ignore the sustainability criteria. I have also been told by multiple sources that, in fact, the “Kenyan problem” was known early on, and that certain GFA coffee committee members acknowledged the “problem” but chose to move forward as they did regardless. Even if one applies the new and revised sustainability criteria, only certified organic coffees could actually be truly “certified” to be eligible. To base the sustainability criteria on interviews with the submitting roasters to “certify” their coffees is, frankly, absurd.

Kenyan coffees are being somewhat singled-out here. Many of the other finalists fail the “free of synthetic pesticides and herbicides” test. It is this informant’s findings that the roasters who entered coffees that are clearly not “sustainable” did so not to be deceptive or somehow subversive, but because the dubious sustainability criteria and the prodding of the GFA coffee committee member(s) who contacted them, led them to believe that the criteria “didn’t really matter after all.”

It is clear that there has been confusion all around regarding the Good Food Awards and eligibility of coffees. In conclusion, it is the hope of this informant that the main takeaway of this story is that sustainability becomes much more than just a buzz-word. The health and well-being of coffee producers, their families, and their eco-system is at stake. The fact is, the third-wave coffee community has, thus far, turned a blind-eye to sustainability issues in favor of chasing the best coffees they can find. Only when the specialty coffee community makes a real commitment to support sustainable agriculture, sometimes in favor of those using “conventional” practices, will we see real change at the farm level.

We must demand better.


“Sustainability”, defined by Geoff Watts:

Sustainability in coffee simply means:

1. that the producers of coffee are earning significant profit from the sale of their coffees and are able to invest, not just subsist.

2. that the coffee is being produced in a way that is not damaging the surrounding ecosystem and that the land is being preserved so as to be productive over generations.

We can be reached for scoops by phone day and night, via the International Scoop Hotline at +1-567-CRINKLY.

Photo originally uploaded by shark senesac.

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  3. kvarrdr

    21 September


  4. KruglovNikolay

    17 September


  5. Thank you Peter and Mark. As a quality focused specialty organic roaster it means a lot to us to know that you both understand the massive viability of a 100% organic standard in Specialty going forward. As Mark said, thrilled to be having this conversation with you all. I suppose these other folks weighing in here don’t talk to specialty coffee consumers, who WANT certified organic AND extraordinary flavor AND ethical trade and are willing to pay for it. We are easily able to provide them with super delicious certified organic, ethically farmed and traded coffee from 16 regions at this time. Most roasters choose to SAY their coffee is sustainable rather than making sure it is. It’s very discouraging to see leading roasters replace organic values with self defined, weak “sustainable” criteria, and to hear this rhetoric replacing organic and shade grown values in specialty marketing and discussions. “Sustainable” sounds like the fox guarding the henhouse to us, same old song from a choir that historically has ZERO credibility in such matters. Now, what REALLY bums us out is when people tell us they enjoy a particular coffee (one we know is grown with loads of agropetro chemical inputs) that was marketed to them as “organic coffee”.
    We wish that high profile ‘experts’ would stop saying things like “default organic” (from Kenya (!) hardee har har) and that using chemical fertilizers at high altitudes in super sensitive ecosystems is somehow “sustainable” and “helps”. Sort of like Monsanto telling us that “Roundup Ready” GMO’s will feed the world. Sadly – not only has the third wave turned a blind eye to sustainability as the Sprudgies say, it’s leaders have badly misinformed the followers and it’s getting worse. You can’t have it both ways, either be organic, or not, but start telling the truth about it and let the buyers decide.

  6. tonx

    8 December

    For the record – the GFA organizers and members of the coffee committee (myself included) continue to own up to our missteps. No one involved with this is saying we didn’t make some serious mistakes with our process. We are trying to move forward in the best way possible and there is a tremendous amount of dialogue happening. I appreciate the impassioned discussion that has emerged around this and think it has been valuable.

    The Good Food Awards is a nascent program and at the time the entry criteria language was being bounced around among the many cooks in our cramped kitchen, there was some awareness and discussion about the lack of clarity of our premise but things moved quickly and went live without resolving those issues. It was a fuck up, and I apologize that we failed to address it.

    Ultimately, regardless of the specificity of the entry criteria, a blind tasting competition among hundreds of products encompassing so much variety presents challenges, particularly when the award has the potential to signify so much more than just a cupping score. Some of these conundrums were anticipated, many were not well addressed and many more continue to be discussed and debated with the goal of making the GFAs a viable and vibrant platform for celebrating artisan producers. It is a learning process for everyone.

    Speaking for myself, I believe that all of the submitted coffees that appeared on the original finalist list are worthy of some praise. The truth of this industry remains that a really good tasting cup of coffee is a real achievement, and an unfortunately rare one. We can (and should) quibble about what is sustainable and who is on the right path, but it can’t be denied that the realm of great tasting coffee is still a very small (albeit loud) speck in the larger coffee landscape. While it is naive to think that a great tasting coffee can only be the product of sustainable practices, it is also wrong to think that sustainable/certified coffees that taste mediocre are going to advance our cause. We still have a long way to go.

    • Kevin Knox

      8 December

      Lots of excellent, thoughtful comments from everyone. Thanks Mark Inman for chiming in; it’s always great to read your thoughts.

      Regarding your most recent post Peter, you’ve cited some wonderful and very recent exceptions to the historical reality that certified organics are almost never the best examples of tell-em-apart-blind great coffees, but the rule remains. For every great certified Ethiopian of the past few years, I’m sure I’ve tasted 50 or a 100 since 1980 that may well have been “default” organics but certainly weren’t certified. Ditto with Yemens, Sumatras, Kenyas of course and all the other coffees I mentioned.

      Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it seems to me the primary focus should be on dazzling flavor in the cup. We should be talking about “what’s in it,” not what isn’t. As for the other components of what constitutes “sustainable,” the loudest voice in determining that should be that of the farmer him or herself. Otherwise, I think we on the roasting and consuming side, however unwittingly, are flirting with cultural imperialism.

      Focusing on flavor and artisanship puts coffee marketing on a par with wine, cheese and every other sustainable food product. So much the better if the coffee/cheese/olive oil/wine or whatever is also organically-grown, but the thrust of the appeal needs to be unique excellence of flavor and the pleasure principle.

      Focusing on certification and definitions of sustainability imposed by worried white people in consuming countries is a phobic, fear-based approach that has long prevailed in the natural foods industry. It certainly doesn’t boot consumption – especially for a non-nutritive product that people consume for its flavor and stimulant effects alone. I’m not saying that anyone participating in this thread has ever condoned such an approach, but that is the reality in natural foods supermarkets, and one of the reasons why I think that specialty roasters who try to do business in such places are striking a Faustian bargain.

      • John Piquet

        8 December


        Well said. Very well said.

        “…Focusing on certification and definitions of sustainability imposed by worried white people in consuming countries is a phobic, fear-based approach that has long prevailed in the natural foods industry. It certainly doesn’t boot consumption – especially for a non-nutritive product that people consume for its flavor and stimulant effects alone. …”

      • Peter Giuliano

        8 December


        I strongly agree that dazzling quality in the cup is of primary importance. I’ve agreed with you since moment one on this. In fact, everyone here agrees with you on this, and always has. I’ll say it again: dazzling quality in the cup is of primary importance!

        In fact, this idea is EXACTLY why the Good Food Awards was created in the first place! You’re right that, historically, sustainable foods haven’t always been great tasting, and great tasting foods haven’t always been sustainable. However, we now know that there are foods- and coffees- that can achieve both spectacular quality and sustainable agriculture, and the Good Food Awards was created to celebrate those foods. The thing you complain about is exactly what the Good Food Awards is trying to fix, and they have put a tremendous amount of energy into putting on a complicated event to do it! I think that deserves praise, not criticism.

        The fact is, Kevin, that you CAN have both spectacular quality and sustainable organic agriculture. It may be “historically accurate” to say that quality and organic have been separated in the past, but that doesn’t make it true now, and it is no longer true in many many cases. You could also say it’s “historically true” that Rwanda, Burundi Honduras, and Bolivia didn’t create great coffees. But change has been dramatic over the next decade, and now we have world class coffees from those origins. And we have spectacular, memorable quality, certified organic coffees.

        There seems to be a kind of urban myth that organic is exclusive from high quality. Why perpetuate that mythology?

        At the same time, you state that it would be ideal for super-memorable coffees to be certified organic. I’ve got good news for you, Kevin! That is TOTALLY POSSIBLE! All we have to do is work together to send a clear message to producers- that we as coffee buyers support and encourage organic agriculture.

        We send these kinds of messages to farmers all the time. We send the “please grow coffee for us” message. We send the “we want spectacular quality, and are willing to pay for it” message. How about the “we want spectacular quality and agrochemical-free agriculture, and are willing to pay for it”? I’m surprised that you pulled out the idea of “cultural imperialism” over sustainable agriculture, but not over imposing quality standards on farmers! Neither are “cultural imperialism”, really. Coffee farmers are growing a cash crop for consumers in the north. There is nothing wrong with these consumers sending signals about what is important to them, whether that is high quality, organic agriculture, or both (I vote for both!). The reason that there haven’t been many sustainable quality coffees in the past is that buyers did not demand them. But the consumers that the Good Food Awards represents are asking for them. My customers are asking for them. I am asking for them. Join us, Kevin, in asking for them, instead of settling for some faded historical idea that such things are difficult to find! We can have it if we want it!


        I’ve got to say, I think there is a lot of criticism here against the Good Food Awards which is completely unfounded. I was not an organizer, but I watched the organizers and coffee committee work. These are passionate professionals who put their heart and soul into doing the best job they could to evaluate and celebrate these spectacular coffees. This was a taste-driven contest. This was not about compromise for the sake of a vague notion of sustainability. This was a quality contest with the simple idea that the coffees submitted should be of spectacular quality AND free from agrochemicals.

        The implications going around here that somehow Whole Foods is behind the GFA and that they made it less about quality is absurd, and offensive to the volunteers who put hours of hard work into putting on a very taste-centered contest. Sarah, Mie, Brent, Tonx, Eileen, and Andrew- along with dozens of taste judges- traveled at their own expense and took their own time to cup these coffees rigorously. They deserve our appreciation. The coffees that emerged as finalists were of spectacular quality. For posters here who- without any information- want to declare this work corrupt because of some rumored Whole Foods involvement, I make the humble request that, out of respect to the volunteers who actually put this thing on, you stop with the unfounded attacks and put some real evidence out there.

        Meanwhile, I want to re-express my thanks for those who put the contest on. They’ve taken responsibility for the (innocent) mistakes that were made, and made a solid, honest effort to rectify them. There is a lot to discuss here, and there are certainly some points of valid disagreement. But let’s remember that the Good Food Awards were- and are- good people trying to do something good: to elevate and celebrate Tasty, Clean, and Fair food.

        Peter G

  7. Rich Westerfield

    7 December

    Peter, et. al.,


    From a relatively uniformed seat on the sidelines, what it sounds like is there are obstacles to capital investment on the buyer’s part, whether it’s the sheer expense of the development work, or the cost of certification to the farmer.


    If obstacles to capital were removed or somewhat alleviated, would that alone open floodgates enabling more small-holder farmers to achieve organic certification? Or are there other issues (cultural, political, etc.) that would still impede progress?


    I was going to ask about SCAA lobbying, but given anti-organic lobbying forces control Congress, probably thinking of other types of non-governmental funding.


    What would you estimate is the cost of bringing a farm that currently uses chemicals to one that’s can meet the criteria of organic certification?

    • John Piquet

      7 December

      Why do Coffee, Pickles, Preserves, and Cheese require growing without “the use of pesticides and herbicides” but chocolate does not require cacao grown without pesticides and herbicides nor does beer require hops to be grown without pesticides or herbicides?

      Truth is, seeing through it all isn’t difficult. Think about the sponsor and the perception their customer base has regarding particular products. A little bit of education is dangerous.

      Remember, Whole Foods is the Wal-Mart of the “natural” foods world. Don’t let perception get in the way of a great marketing scheme.

      Another Award. Another chance for a well-tooled PR department to do it’s job.

    • Mark Inman

      8 December


      The cost would greatly depend on the following:

      1. How large of a farm are you talking about
      2. Is the farmer an independent (estate) or a member of a union or cooperative

      It will cost dramatically less for a farmer to become certified if he/she is involved in a cooperative which shares the cost of the certification.
      Aside from the cost of certification itself, the main cost/risk is gaining the knowledge how to apply organic/permaculture principals to the farm. The tattered excuses of losing yield, increasing disease is an educational problem and not one of organic agricultural methodology.

      The main thing to keep in mind is that the farm has to have ceased using agrochemicals for 3 years before it can be certified-organic, which means the farm will have to apply the methodology without realizing the increased premium associated with certified-organic coffees.

  8. Mark Inman

    7 December

    Lots of great comments here and- again, am glad to hear from Kevin!


    The whole argument of the organic/poverty link is a straw dog argument that flies in the face of numerous studies on this matter. Most notably has been Danielle Giovannucci/World Bank studies that show that organic certification still show the largest in-hand premium to growers.


    Certified-Organic it not a perfect system in coffee. Nobody has ever made this claim. But the system has proven to be very effective in other food products-giving us a real template to work with to make it work. Even Norman Borlaug’s claim that organic agriculture could not feed the world has been shot down by numerous studies (most notably the Rodale Institute’s study on Effectiveness of Global Organic Agriculture which was completed in 2006, In fact, in many parts of the world, certified-organic food production offer significant premiums over their conventional contemporaries.


    The problem so far has lied in the producing countries, who have not supported this form of agriculture. Agronomists are woefully ignorant in creating organic systems that work. Systems that can eliminate the drops in yield and increase coffee quality. Governments have offered zero incentives or assistance to growers who desire to go organic, leaving the support to come from various NGO projects and a smattering of roasters who believe in these methods of agriculture. It is no wonder, given these roadblocks that we have seen very few “pedigree” coffee farms that are certified-organic.


    But the GFA needs to make up its mind what it wants to be. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Knox that WFoods involvement guarantees a complete mess. Does the GFA’s want to showcase “Tasty” foods (they use this term ad nauseum) or “sustainable tasty foods?” It is possible to do both.And changing the rules mid-stream (adding “Synthetic” ) downplaying some qualifiers, being unable to explain others (defining “Fair”), point to the lack of preparedness this group continues to display.


    I would also agree with Rachael that RFA, SMBC or Certified-Organic should have sufficed under their standards. The GFA should not paint itself into a corner to allow for only one type of certification. All three programs (although different) have well-thought out, time tested standards. Attempting to create new standards on the fly ( as the GFA did) proved to be a disaster. Go with what has been proven to work!


    Finally, I love nothing more than to have the opportunity to know a little factoid that Peter G does not (this is an extremely rare opportunity for me). Certified-organic coffees WOULD NOT qualify under the original GFE standards as OMRI allows for numerous naturally derived pesticides. The missing words “Synthetic” or “Petroleum-Based” is what made it a killer- making only wild crafted/harvested or default-organic coffees able to qualify under the standard.


    Great dialogue, everyone. Glad to be discussing this issue with you all..


    Mark Inman

  9. rachel Peterson

    6 December



    I agree that I got carried away. I don’t actually believe that organic perpetuates poverty, I meant that it’s riskier for the farmer. It was a loaded statement and I retract it. I’m annoyed at the way this was carried out and got caught up in a tirade against organic, which is not the issue anyway.

  10. greg

    6 December

    I still say that honoring coffee at the “Good Food Awards” smacks a bit like honoring country music at the NAACP Image Awards.

  11. Rachel Peterson

    6 December

    Hacienda La Esmeralda was disqualified as well. As it should have been according to the original rules. As all of the coffees should have been according to the original rules. The rules were changed along the way and the word synthetic was added to pesticides and herbicides, so organic coffees could remain. I hope that when the final list is printed only organic coffees certified by a third party are included, otherwise this is a joke.


    The true question in my mind is this:


    Did Good Food Awards want sustainable coffees or organic coffees? If the answer is organic, then it should have been stated from the outset, and only coffees certified organic by a third party should be considered. If the actual concern is sustainability, and whether “the coffee is being produced in a way that is not damaging the surrounding ecosystem and that the land is being preserved so as to be productive over generations” then we shouldn’t have been disqualified. We don’t use pesticides and we use herbicides in a very limited way. Hacienda La Esmeralda is Rainforest Alliance Certified, a certification which is all about sustainability, as much for the environment as socially. An organic certification is only about whether chemicals are used during growing, without a care as to whether the workers are treated fairly. Organic is a also a multibillion dollar a year industry.


    Although I very much respect (and like) Peter Giuliano, I disagree with his comments that our ambition should be 100% organic specialty coffee. In my opinion this will only perpetuate poverty in coffee. Organic is not synonymous with good taste, nor with sustainability, and the vast majority of coffees, even if they are specialty, will not receive the necessary premium for them to be sustainable if they go organic.

    • Anonymous

      6 December

      Rachel’s reply should count for a great deal, given the well-deserved accolades La Esmeralda has received and their consistent excellence over many years in their production.


      “Organic is not synonynous with taste, nor with sustainability…and will only perpetuate poverty.” That’s an authentic producer’s perspective. The reality is that the few great organically-grown coffees (in Yemen and Ethiopia) are essentially wild-grown coffees with yields per hectare that are a tiny fraction of what would be considered viable even in low-yielding shade canopy in the Americas. Yet Yemen Mocha and Harrars, unlike, say, Oaxacan organics, aren’t charity cases: the Saudis and otherw pay up big time because there’s no substitute if you love that particular taste of place. Ditto with La Esmeralda.

    • Peter Giuliano

      6 December

      I like and respect Rachel a lot too, but I totally disagree with the notion that organic perpetuates poverty. This is a huge, provocative statement, and I don’t understand it. I certainly don’t agree with it.


      Poverty is a serious business, and is the result of a complex socioeconomic problem. Poor farmers are poor for a variety of reasons. Organic agriculture is not one of them.


      Certified organic allows farmers to sell their produce at a premium for avoiding dangerous agrochemicals and chemical fertilizer and practicing effective, sustainable agricultural techniques. If anything, it’s a potential solution to poverty!


      Most of the poorest farmers of the world are NOT certified organic and are NOT farming organically. Many of the poorest farmers I have ever encountered were using cheap chemical fertilizer on their farms. The evidence would actually seem to point to CHEMICAL agriculture being the cause of poverty! But that’s not true either. In truth, poverty is way too complex to pin on either organic or conventional agriculture. Coffee prices, farm size, family size, access to medical care, access to credit…. these all have a real impact on poverty.


      Rachel’s other statements are similarly difficult for me to understand:
      “and the vast majority of coffees, even if they are specialty, will not receive the necessary premium for them to be sustainable if they go organic.” Why on earth would this be so? why couldn’t they fetch sufficient premium? Groups like the Good Food Awards seek to celebrate, and presumably pay premiums for, these kinds of spectacular coffees grown without agrochemicals!


      Rachel says that “organic is a multibillion dollar a year industry”. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then chemical/conventional agriculture is many many billions of dollars LARGER. But why even mention that anyway? Is this an attempt to characterize organic agriculture as “big business”? Agrochemicals are the really big business, aren’t they?



      p.s. I disagree with the notion that “grown without pesticides, herbicides, and GMOs” disqualifies all coffees. It doesn’t. Organic coffees are grown without pesticides and herbicides, unless you consider the caffeine in the coffee itself a pesticide. But that would be weird.

      • walt

        7 December

        Your lack of experience in the real world is abundantly apparent, as is your transparent attempt to misrepresent what was actually written in the post to which you responded.

  12. rick

    5 December

    lol at tony’s only “professional” connection to coffee is his personal blog.

  13. Peter Giuliano

    5 December

    Wow, provocative article!


    Because I submitted coffee to the contest, I was among the roasters who identified the confusing entry qualifications, I was one of the taste judges, and I was one of the people whose opinions were sought out in the resolution of the problem, I wound up being on the front lines of this whole thing. And, as a passionate advocate for both quality and agricultural progress, I certainly feel a stake in this discussion.


    In my opinion, the anonymous article gets its facts a little messy, so please don’t anyone read this as the real “scoop”. I don’t necessarily think it’s a good use of my space here to quibble with the details, however.


    I do think the conclusion of the article is worth talking about, however.


    The organizers of the Good Food Awards, like many consumers of specialty coffee, are concerned that “conventional” agriculture, especially that which evolved since the 1950s, has become extremely dependent on agrochemicals. These agrochemicals can be dangerous, damaging to the environment, and since they are largely made from fossil fuels, are inherently unsustainable. Coffee is not immune to this- there are many coffee producers in the world who cannot, at this point, imagine growing coffee without synthetic agrochemicals. However, there is an alternative: organic agriculture- which uses sound, biological techniques to address soil fertility and pest avoidance, works great with coffee. Problem is, those pesky agrochemicals can be habit-forming. Many farmers who have gotten accustomed to growing coffee with agrochemicals get used to the ease and extra productivity these agrochemicals give them. It’s not laziness,however: these agrochemicals exist for good reason- farming is difficult, and the chemicals certainly help. As Stephen points out, it’s a constant struggle to provide farmers with good alternatives to agrochemicals, and provide the training and knowledge needed to utilize them.


    It’s inspiring that there are roasters, exporters, importers, even governments and NGOs who are struggling to provide farmers with good, sustainable alternatives to agrochemicals, in pursuit of sustainability. I am proud to be one of those individuals. However, this costs money to do, and it usually winds up with the farmers’ yields going down, at least temporarily. This is a real challenge. I’m proud that our industry is up for that challenge, and seeks to support an agriculture that is more sustainable and is accessible to all farmers.


    However, I think it’s fair to say that the great-coffee community’s support of sustainable agriculture has been somewhat inconsistent. Here’s what I mean: as a person who is out there working with farmers and trying to create incentives for sustainability, it’s extremely frustrating that there are farms which have made little or no progress at all, and who don’t seem to make it a priority. It’s even more frustrating to hear a barista or roaster say something like “Well, it’s not CERTIFIED organic, but it doesn’t have any chemicals.” or “Well, it’s not CERTIFIED organic, but it’s just as good as, since the farmers can’t afford chemicals” or “it must be sustainable because it tastes so good. The proof is in the cup.” about those very coffees where there is little progress or desire to improve. This is the “glossing over” in our industry that the author refers to.


    This Good Food Awards has triggered lots of discussion among the roasting community. Through this discussion, I learned that many roasters were conflicted when they decided to submit coffees to the contest which they knew still needed progress in order to be considered “free” from agrochemicals. Why does this happen?


    I know why many do: because they don’t want to do what Stephen characterized as saying to a poor farmer: “Sorry poor farmer, your coffee tastes amazing but you don’t do things they way you should be so I’m not going to buy it.” But what are the implications of that? Shouldn’t we celebrate the achievements of farmers that DO farm sustainably? Shouldn’t we provide them economic incentives for doing so?


    I agree with much of what my friend Stephen says, however the fact remains: many of the “Rock Star” farmers he references are NOT using organic farming techniques despite selling their coffee for high prices. Why would they, when their coffees are in such high demand on account of their flavor? There are also farmer groups who are making no progress at all towards sustainability, and who are selling their coffee at high prices on account of great flavor. Meanwhile, there are many small producer cooperatives and larger farmers alike who have made great strides in producing spectacular quality organic coffees. How can we identify the difference, and celebrate and support those who make progress?


    The farmers of East Africa, like those everywhere, deserve access to proven or innovative agricultural techniques that reduce or eliminate their reliance on agrochemicals. It will take a continuous effort on our part to support and drive this. The best way we can do this is to 1. provide economic incentives for farming organically and for certifying organic 2. working to provide training and infrastructure to these farmers, in the places they need them, and 3. supporting innovation that helps farmers develop new ways to farm sustainably.


    Are we sending those messages as clearly as we can? Are we, as a community, supporting this kind of training and infrastructure?


    Stephen is right, that there are farmers and roasters and other entities that are out there doing great work. How can we identify and support them? This is what the Good Food Awards sought to do- to identify and celebrate the farmers that were doing both great quality and great agricultural practice. I think the decisions they made are consistent with that intention.


    I think the best possible outcome here would be to recognize the farmers that wind up winning this contest as ones that have really made the significant achievement of producing great quality while farming sustainably. It think it’s also important to recognize the finalists not as “losers” by any stretch, but simply those who have achieved great quality but are still in progress towards achieving better agricultural practice.


    By the way, I think organic certification is a huge demonstration of commitment and achievement towards agricultural sustainability, and I think our goal should be 100% organic agriculture in specialty coffee. This is an ambitious goal, but I know it’s possible. What will it take to support farmers towards achieving this goal? How can we deal with fungus or soil fertility or weeds without agrochemicals? Who’s doing it already, and what can we learn from them? How can we get that knowledge to the farmers who are still struggling? Above all, how can we support this with our commerce?


    I think it’s an opportunity for us to learn more, and achieve more clarity about agriculture in general.


    Peter G

    • Kevin Knox

      6 December

      Lots of great comments – especially Peter’s.


      IMHO it all has to start with building a consumer market for that knows about, delights in and cares about coffees that are truly distinctive and delicious in flavor. By “distinctive” I mean let’s start with those very few origin coffees that are unmistakable in a blind tasting. As any professional cupper knows, these are relatively few in number: a great dry-processed Ethiopian Harrar and/or Yemen Mocha; Sumatra and Sulawesi and aged variants; a top Kenya auction lot; first-rate Yergacheffe or Sidamo; El Salvador Pacamara, and yes, Panama Esmeralda, the finest Ethiopian coffee Central America can produce. Notably absent from this list are manicured high-altitude bourbons from wherever, most coffees from Latin America – and anything certified organic or fair trade, though I’ll grant that the Ethiopians could quite possibly come from certified farms in some years.


      I’m not claiming this is a complete list, but these coffees, love ’em or hate ’em, are the ones that consistently generate excitement among consumers who are ready to graduate from thinking French Roast or made-to-order espresso-based milk drinks are the height of coffee connoisseurship. In my opinion, getting reference-standard versions of these coffees into the mouths of consumers ought to be the first priority of any roaster-retailer who cares about advancing the interests of farmers. The consumer has to be able to taste the difference and it had better be dazzling and worth it.


      I agree 100% that the ideal is 100% organic farming for specialty coffees, but I don’t know when or if we’ll get there. But I’m confident that we can learn a great deal from the wine trade here, which is infinitely more sophisticated than the coffee business. Many of the leading producers in Burgundy, the Rhone and even the U.S. are not just organic but biodynamic, but what they talk about on the bottle and to consumers generally is unique taste, not growing methods or certifications. Ditto with great cheese producers, olive oil, jamon de serrano and other “Good Foods.”


      Getting a company like Whole Foods, which has purity criteria but no quality standards for pretty much anything they source (not to even speak of the way they handle and brew coffee!) involved in sponsoring or judging the best of anything in food is pretty much a guaranteed disaster, by the way. Maybe next time these awards could be co-sponsored by folks like Zingerman’s, Slow Food, Chef’s Collaborative and other organizations that put flavor and quality – what’s IN the food – first.

      • Peter Giuliano

        6 December

        Well, Kevin, we agree on many things here. We agree that Organic agriculture is the goal, and we agree that it is of crucial importance to delight consumers with coffees that are distinctive and delicious. We agree that flavor is an important topic of discussion with the consumer.


        Here’s where we disagree: you say that “absent from the list” of great, distinctive coffees are any Certified Organic or Fair Trade coffees. This is incorrect; there have been a great number of extraordinary, distinctive Certified Organic and Certified Fair Trade coffees from the very origins and categories you mention. Let me list some:


        The coffee I submitted to the Good Food Awards was from Aida Battle’s Finca Kilimanjaro. This Salvadoran coffee that evokes great Kenyan coffees- since it’s planted with the mysterious “Kenya” variety- is simply spectacular. It dominated the Salvadoran Cup of Excellence, taking #1, and setting a record for coffee sold at auction. Following her success, Aida took the admirable and responsible step of doing the hard work of certifying all her farms organic. It’s been certified organic for 4 years now, and continues to fetch high prices and receive accolades from the handful of roasters who are lucky enough to buy it.


        I had the great pleasure of tasting an incredible coffee from Kona this year, from Mountain Thunder Farms, purchased by CBI/Public Domain. It is- in this taster’s opinion- completely the equal or better than Esmeralda; all that lemon, jasmine, and floral character. It’s certified Organic too.


        The coffee most people consider to be the greatest of all Natural Ethiopians was the magnificent Idido Misty Valley, which certainly set the standard for all perfect prep Yirgacheffe Naturals. The Idido mill also produced the famous Aricha selections. Yup, all Certified Organic. Beloya? Certified Organic.


        In fact, many of the great natural Sidamos and a number of washed Ethiopians are certified organic. Despite popular belief, these are NOT wild-crafted coffees. There isn’t much wild-crafted coffee in Yirgacheffe (that’s other parts of Ethiopia). There are small farmers, who maintain their “garden plots” of coffee organically, and whose co-ops have been Certified Organic. Oh, by the way, many of these co-ops are certified Fair Trade too.


        The best Sumatran coffee I have ever tasted, a perfect-prep microlot from the Atu Lintang section of the Jagong valley, is from the Organic Gayo Farmer’s Cooperative. They are certified Fair Trade as well as organic.


        I could go on and on. Due to the hard work and dedication of farmers and roasters, there are many many examples of truly exemplary certified organic coffees. In fact, doesn’t it make sense that the coffees we celebrate as “reference standards” and pay high prices for SHOULD be certified organic?


      • Peter Giuliano

        6 December

        Oh I forgot:


        I understand that both the #1 and #2 coffees from the recent Brazil COE were certified organic.



  14. Stephen Vick

    5 December

    This statement is a gross generalization and if I thought this were even remotely true, I wouldn’t have spent the past two years of my life dedicating my work to the African coffee supply sector:


    “The fact is, the third-wave coffee community has, thus far, turned a blind-eye to sustainability issues in favor of chasing the best coffees they can find.”


    In my experience, the company’s that are pushing their buying practices to the next level (I don’t need to use names) are indeed “chasing the best coffees they can find” and then building relationships with these farmers and, year-after-year, making a concerted effort to help the farmers become more sustainable in what they do.


    Very few coffee farmers are well-off. There are a handful of these rock-star farmers we hear about that are doing things absolutely perfectly at every step of the way. These “third-wave” farmers are few and far between and represent less than 1% of the 25 million people who grow coffee around the world. The vast majority of coffee farmers don’t have the money to invest or resources available to do things flawlessly. Many farmers in Africa are at the will of using inputs on their farms that are supplied by their cooperatives, which are in turn supplied by their governments. They really don’t have a choice in this matter at all without working capital, which is often only attainable through forward-contracts used as loan collateral. Simply saying, “Sorry poor farmer, your coffee tastes amazing but you don’t do things they way you should be so I’m not going to buy it,” is not the solution to making the global coffee supply sector more sustainable in the future.


    There is a reason why Intelligentsia put me on the ground for seven weeks in Rwanda this year and six weeks in Ethiopia. This is to ensure that 1) we are buying coffees of high-quality, 2) the coffees get to our Roast Works in a timely fashion and in excellent condition, and 3) the suppliers we are working with have the organization, willingness, and capacity to work with us for a long time so that we can be continue to source quality coffees while helping the specific farmers with whom we work become more sustainable over the long-term. Sustainability does not happen over night in countries where coffee has been grown for hundreds or thousands of years under strict government regulations and rigorous traditions.


    In all of the places I have visited this year, where I deemed necessary, I have supplied my knowledge and expertise regarding various steps in the chain that would help the producer become more sustainable while producing higher quality coffee. Specifically, I provided organic pulp composting recommendations to cooperatives who didn’t have the resources for organic compost inputs such as EM, lime, etc., utilizing organic materials that can be found around the farm.


    In Rwanda, one of the best coffees I cupped all season we didn’t end up buying because after I met with the supplier I saw a number of red-flags that I knew would prevent long-term sustainability from becoming a reality. This is why we spend so much time on the ground. Samples can be sent from any where. Great coffee can be found from many places. But to really get a grasp as to what a Direct Trade relationship will look like and analyze the feasibility of it’s long term sustainability, face-to-face interaction is 100% necessary.


    The above statement may very well apply to some companies out there, but is largely unfair and inaccurate with reference to the small number of companies (and the ones people are talking about) who have been working their tails off to do things right and reverse this trend.


    –Stephen E. Vick

    • Ryan

      5 December

      Thanks for your response Stephen. It’s more irritating to see that coffee professionals and consumers in the ‘third wave’ are not connecting the dots that highest quality coffees being produced are almost always the product of more sustainable situations.


      If we take a look at the few of the coffee producing all-stars, they continue to be viewed as all-stars year after year because they are PARTNERING with great roasters and each are working together to raise the quality of the coffee which intricately involves progressing in higher wages, better environmental practices, and each part of the chain being highlighted in a more positive way.


      There are companies that jump on and try to simply purchase the best coffee they can find. But I think the companies that are truly finding the best coffees are doing so much more like Stephen is stating above and they deserve the recognition. These companies (which I think we know and don’t need to list) are the ones that truly have the best cup quality, because of their extra work and practices.


      As for the Good Food Awards, I hope that we can learn from the mistakes this year and that the specialty coffee community can continue to work closely with the organization to education and revise some of the criteria to make for a more positive and less dramatic competition in the years to come.

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