Why Standards Matter: The GFA Example

By Mark Inman

In the fall of 2010, a San Francisco-based group called The Seedling Projects organized a group of known food producers, writers, grocers, farmers and chefs to create “The Good Food Awards” (GFA), recognizing producers and food communities around the U.S. that create excellent beer, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, pickles, preserves and coffee. The group’s goal: to celebrate and reward foods that are delicious, authentic and responsibly produced.

In the coffee division, the standards for entry seemed, at first glance, to be rather straightforward. The group’s website, www.goodfoodawards.org, defined it thus: To qualify for entry, roasters must emphasize fairness and transparency from seed to cup, and certify that their coffee beans are grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides.

On first read, it seems like a thoughtful, articulate explanation of what they desire. Upon a second read, however, one who is moderately versed in sustainable agriculture and food production could easily spot a glaring problem with their standards. Aside from the squishy standard of emphasizing “fairness,” the larger issue is found in the statement that roasters must, “certify the their coffee beans are grown without the use of pesticides or herbicides.”

The discrepancy arises because the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), Rainforest Alliance, and SMBC Shade Certification all allow coffee to be grown with numerous naturally derived pesticides and herbicides, as listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI.org). If an entrant were to take the GFA’s requirement at face value, they would know that their certified coffees would not qualify for submission, as most certified farms employ OMRI-approved inputs.

As it would also be near impossible to verify that conventional coffees were grown without the use of pesticides, that would leave only truly wild-crafted coffee as a coffee that would meet this particular standard. What was missing from the language of the award standard were the terms synthetic- or petroleum-based pesticides and herbicides, which would have been verifiable, allowing for a larger swath of coffees to participate.

During the event, 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 roasters who inquired deeper about the strange language of the standards have reported that the sustainability aspects of GFA were downplayed during that recruiting. The phrase, ”Just send your best coffee” was quoted multiple times.

To the shock and dismay of numerous coffee people, the list of the 22 finalists in the GFA’s contained eight conventional coffees from Kenya, which has a history of promoting and supporting technified conventional agriculture, with the vast majority of Kenyan coffee farmers using significant chemical inputs annually. In addition, two finalists used coffee from the infamous Hacienda La Esmeralda, who in 2007 discussed their conventional agricultural practices and use of pesticides and herbicides on a panel at the SCAA conference in Long Beach, California.

Critics of the results of the GFA voiced their concerns on Facebook, Twitter as well as on Sprudge.com. Sprudge released two stories outlining the turmoil within the GFA ranks over this ever-growing controversy.

A response from the GFA only added fuel to the firestorm that was increasingly surrounding them. Despite their clear submission standards, officials from the GFA stated that the original entrants were only evaluated for their “Tastiness,” and that only the finalists would be vetted for their ability to adhere to their published standards.

The SCAA has been instrumental in the creation of numerous standards over its rich history. It created meaningful dialogue during the Sustainability Forums of the late 90’s to early 2000s, which increased the awareness and integrity of the Shade-Grown, Fair-Trade and Organic coffee movements. The SCAA’s involvement in creating standards in water quality, brewing and espresso standards has assisted our membership in further improving the quality of coffee served. As numerous SCAA members participated in the jury of the GFA’s, we squandered an opportunity to assist the GFA’s in creating a competition that was real and significant and free from the public relations mess they are dealing with today.

As the GFAs narrow down their finalists to the top three (which are to be announced January 14th), it will be interesting to see how they correct their stumble and save what appears to be a grand, but flawed, effort. If the Seedling Projects decide to make the GFAs an annual event, it seems they should consider working in tandem with the SCAA to create a set of criteria that are well thought-out, verifiable and meaningful. Either way, the GFAs have been rich fodder for the blogging community and a learning lesson to those who have the desire to create similar events.

Mark Inman started Taylor Maid Farms in 1993 based on a passion for remarkable coffee and the belief that business can be environmentally and socially progressive while remaining profitable. For more than sixteen years, Mark has been a leading voice in the specialty coffee industry for issues concerning sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship, green entrepreneurship and social justice. In 2008, Mark served as President of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, where he has also chaired or served on numerous committees and international task forces.