The wonderful world of labels...

In the lab

The wonderful world of labels...

Jean Etchats | 2021-09-20

FOCUS : Organic farming and the BIO label 

The EU imported 130,000 tonnes of unroasted organic coffee in 2019 (+11.6% vs. 2018), representing 3.5% of all unroasted coffee imports. At Belco, our share of organic coffees has been increasing by 15% each year in volume since 2018. And the number of coffees that we stock has risen from about 15 to almost 200 (organic, biodynamic, decaf). 
More than merely a trend, organic farming is a sustainable means of production in line with current environmental issues.:  


Today’s consumers are confronted with a wide variety of production methods and ideologies, united under a single “organic” label. And when it comes to imported products, they are even more confused: What do certification bodies control? Do these products comply with the same standards as French ones? How can I be sure a product is truly organic? 

In addition, there is the issue of human health. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the quality of the products they consume, and it is now common knowledge that exposure to certain pesticides can cause diseases. 

The aim of organic agriculture is to promote agronomic practices that have a positive ecological, economic and social impact. For its pioneers, organic agriculture was a radical alternative to production-oriented agriculture, to industrialisation of the food industry and to mass consumption, yet today it seems to have turned its back on its main objectives. The French AB organic agriculture label currently employs practices very similar to those of conventional agriculture, repeating the same mistakes, in a barely more ecological form, using synthetic inputs and monoculture. It is feared that as the AB label evolves it will come under the control of the big players in the food system, that it will become “conventionalised”, or even a brand. 

Unless organic agriculture is recognised as a set of techniques, or a market, rather than an innovative production system, it will not be able to challenge the dominant agricultural model.”  

 Solenne Piriou, L’institutionnalisation de l’agriculture biologique. 

Organic products imported under European standards are not required to respect a specific pesticide residue limit, instead the limits applicable for conventional products apply, i.e. the MRL (Maximum Residue Limit), calculated in relation to daily doses and health effects. The fact that there are no established residue limits for organic produce offers considerable leeway, with tolerance for cross-contamination and no detrimental effects for producers. Although sometimes advantageous for farmers, this tolerance results in drifts. The absence of any official standards acts in favour of the biggest market players, those most easily able to negotiate and defend themselves in case of a dispute with the certifying body. 

To dispel consumers’ doubts and reduce the environmental impact of coffee production, Belco is assisting producers and working to reduce use of pesticides. It is why we control imports to the full, with total traceability and demanding quality control standards. Our sourcing, quality and field teams work to encourage sustainable practices, in line with the ideals of organic farming and to offer a real alternative to existing production methods. With our certifier, and in agreement with our suppliers, we have introduced specifications imposing precise residue limits, as well as actions required in case of contamination. We have communicated these specifications to all our suppliers, and they have committed to comply with them. Exceeding by far the requirements of the label.  

At Belco, we task an independent laboratory with analysing each coffee on its arrival at the warehouse, before making it available for sale.  

Here is how we proceed based on the results: 


 à Negative results 

Most coffees give negative results. 

 à Results below 0.010 mg/kg 

We process these coffees internally and with the producer. We inform the producer directly if we find traces of residues, and work on traceability and alternative proposals in collaboration with our team of field engineers. 


à Results between 0.010 mg/kg and 0.020 mg/kg 

We perform a second analysis, and if the results are the same, we downgrade the coffee. We inform our certifying body and carry out field work. 

à Results above 0.020 mg/kg 

We block the coffee and perform a second analysis. If the results are the same, we downgrade the coffee, inform our certifier and carry out field work. Based on these results, the certifier conducts a thorough investigation to study the sources of contamination. 

Our field and quality engineers give advice, with the goal of reducing contamination and gradually eliminating it over successive harvests. We also like to help farmers wishing to convert to organic farming, and analysing residues and identifying sources of contamination can prove useful during the transition period. As a result of studying results and implementing solutions, some of the coffees that tested positive last year have delivered residue-free results at this year’s harvest. This is the case for certain Peruvian coffees, achieved by working on traceability, identifying sources of contamination and implementing solutions. Cross-contamination between neighbouring plots is also common, and vegetative barriers can be set up to prevent it. These examples highlight the importance of agroforestry and of building barriers to control erosion and run-off. 

As a result of analysing all microlots, we were also able to identify plots where contaminants were present and exclude them from our Terroir coffees. A single plot can contaminate an entire lot and cause major problems for producers in case of decertification. 

Here too, agroecological practices involving for example agroforestry, varietal selection, sustainable weed management and biodiversity have proved valuable, and are interesting alternatives to use of synthetic products and their propagation. Each time the results of an analysis are positive, we present the producer with solutions, with the aim of increasing knowledge and exchange of information between sourcing professionals, engineers and producers. 



Ethiopia is the birthplace of the Arabica coffee tree. The country offers a surprising array of unique coffee flavours and organoleptic profiles, achieved thanks to production systems created around wild and endemic varieties (Heirloom), ancestral agricultural practices and remarkable terroirs and shaded environments (forest coffees®). The coffees produced in Ethiopia are organic by nature. It is obtaining certification that poses a problem. Ethiopia’s ancestral production methods are fully in line with both Belco and organic specifications. None of the Ethiopian coffees analysed since 2019 have shown traces of residues. Belco also ensures there are no pesticide residues in its forest coffees® range. In the future, Belco wants to make it easier for producers to obtain certification, to be able to increase their income and encourage their practices. And we would like to involve you! 


  • Finca Irlanda 

Finca Irlanda was the first coffee farm to be Demeter–Biodynamic certified, in 1963. This year, Belco sourced and imported 160 bags from Finca Irlanda. Our aim for the future is to help the farm improve the quality of its coffee and receive training in biodynamic practices.  


  • Los Encuentros plot 

Our partner Renardo Ovalle, from Vides 58, shares our philosophy and the same desire to adopt sustainable practices. Accompanied by our field engineer, Marjorie Canjura, he embarked over two years ago on a training programme in organic agriculture provided by our partner COMSA in the region of Marcala, in Honduras. Since then, he has converted more than 15 hectares to organic farming, and this year we imported 96 bags. These coffees contain no pesticide residues and are well on their way to being certified within the year.  

In conclusion 

Reducing use of pesticides and promoting alternative agricultural practices are actions consistent with Belco’s objective to promote a healthier, environmentally-friendly and more profitable agriculture for producers. Once again, agroecological and integrated practices seem the only solutions for reducing inputs and increasing sustainability in the coffee industry. In the same way that traceability and quality analysis help us offer consumers a transparent product that meets their expectations. 

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