Kate's Global Kitchen
Kate Heyhoe  

Feeding the Organic Underground

by Kate Heyhoe


When most folks hear the word "organic," they probably envision noble, local farmers, tending their crops with diligence instead of pesticides. They should also envision both small and enormous farms, not just in North America, but on every continent, raising everything from carrots to cocoa beans.

As edibles go, organic carrots and apples and cherries all make sense, and finding them is no longer a problem. But what about spices? Should it matter if those little green and brown flecks of flavor are organic or not?

Herbs In the United States, conventional spices (including herbs) are usually treated with chemicals hazardous enough to be banned in Europe and Japan. Pesticide residues, genetically modified ingredients, and irradiation may also contaminate the spices. Other concerns arise when crops are cultivated on clear-cut lands, or are harvested by workers paid at subsistence wages or less.

It's not unreasonable to want to ensure the safety of spices, for they risk the same contamination as other crops, including molds, insects, and bacteria. Conventional ethylene oxide treatments are potent enough to kill most pathogens, but they also leave toxic residue and are known to cause cancer among workers with prolonged exposure. Irradiation may also, by altering the chemical composition, create carcinogens, and pose risks wherever radioactive materials are handled.

Organic spice companies take different paths. Steam heat is a safe sterilization solution for nonleafy spices (like nutmeg and cloves), while leafy herbs undergo freezing and carbon dioxide treatments. Better yet, organic spice companies like ForestTrade and Frontier reduce the risk at the source: their farmers sun-dry spices in clean environments and sanitary conditions, and the spices undergo rigorous laboratory testing for contaminants prior to distribution. Organic spices also lack the fillers, preservatives, and artificial coloring and anti-caking additives often found in conventional spices.

Frontier Natural Products Co-op and ForesTrade are the two largest suppliers of organic spices, though you'll likely find their products under the names of their retail clients. The Spice Hunter's organic spices (not all of their spices are organic) come from ForesTrade, as do Yogi Botanicals and Tazo Tea. Simply Organic is a Frontier retail brand. You can also taste ForesTrade's organic vanilla beans in Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, and their coffee beans in Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

Funding the Mission

The health and sustainable agricultural benefits are only part of the impact of organic spices. From Achi, Indonesia (site of the disastrous 2004 tsunami) to Ghana and Belize, third-world organics often include putting a healthy portion of social responsibility and fair trade economics on the plate.

ForestTrade, headquartered in Brattleboro, Vermont, is just one project funded in part by Verde Ventures, a $7 million investment fund managed by the nonnprofit organization Conservation International (CI). According to its website, "Verde Ventures strengthens small and medium-sized enterprises that are strategically important to biodiversity conservation. The fund provides debt and equity financing of $30,000-$500,000 to select businesses in CI's priority area....Verde Ventures is one of three funds established by CI for the protection and promotion of biodiversity." (The two complementary funds managed by CI are The Critical EcoSystem Partnership Fund, and The Global Conservation Fund.)

ForesTrade gives its farmers field support to implement sustainable agriculture, incorporating crop rotation, composting, natural pest and disease control, and methods that increase and improve their crop production. The farmers are also paid quite fairly, more than they would be for conventional spice crop production. In return, they agree not to clear-cut or destroy the rainforest preserves, which they had been doing, resulting in ecological damage and erosion. Other companies practice social responsibility, funding health centers, schools, and housing projects, or introducing modern amenities like electricity.

Verde Ventures has invested more that $7 million in 36 enterprises, one of which is ForestTrade. Not all investments are so directly tied to the food chain, but here's a few that are, as described by Verde Ventures:

Cacao Day Chocolate Company: A United Kingdom-based fair-trade chocolate company that sources cocoa from CI's Ghanaian conservation cocoa partner, Kuapa Kokoo. Day's products (including Divine Chocolate) are available in the UK and via the SERRV catalogue in the US. In May 2001, Verde Ventures invested $250,000 in Day Chocolate. In a first for Fairtrade, these farmers also own one third of the company, which means they have a direct relationship with the staff, an influence over how the company is run and a share of any profits. While cocoa grown on plantations can be detrimental to biodiversity, Kuapa farmers working with CI's Conservation Cocoa program seek to increase yields of existing crops, reduce pesticide use, and diversify farms to ensure maximum shade in buffer zones bordering some of Ghana's most important protected areas. Farmers participating with Day Chocolate earn a better living and the incentive to continue growing shade cocoa, rather than converting to more detrimental crops such as oil palm.

CECOVASA: Central de Cooperativas Agrarias Cafetaleras de los Valles de Sandia (CECOVASA) is a federation of cooperatives, with 5,000 members (30% women) of Quechuan and Aymaran small coffee producers. CECOVASA provides logistical support, on farm technical assistance, and access to credit and training to its members, as well as coordinates warehousing, milling, marketing, and exporting of certified-organic, Fair Trade and gourmet coffee to US and European markets. In June 2004, Verde Ventures made available a 3-year $350,000 rotating line of credit for CECOVASA to provide post-harvest financing to conservation coffee cooperatives in the buffer-zone of Bahuaha-Sonene National Park and the Tambopata-Candamo Natural Reserve in Southern Peru. CI Peru partnered with CECOVASA to find solutions to the rapid deforestation and declining coffee yields. CI and CECOVASA encourage farmers to move to higher-elevation, abandoned fields by providing support to produce and market coffee grown according to conservation best practices. These production methods keep farmers away from the park and protect the local watershed while providing participants with direct economic incentives for compliance, due to resulting improvements in quality, organic certification and subsequent contracts with Starbucks.

PPGKO: The Gayo Organic Coffee Farmers Association (PPKGO) was officially established in 1999 in the Gayo Highlands of central Ache in Indonesia. PPGKO is the first and only coffee cooperative in Indonesia that is Fair Trade certified and focused on the production of 100% shade grown, organic coffee. Currently the cooperative has 1,800 members in 24 communities. Twenty percent of the cooperative members are women. The cooperative's farmers live near the buffer zone to Gunung Leuser National Park, which contains critical watershed areas and sanctuaries for endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger. In September 2005 Verde Ventures provided an investment of $150,000 directly to the cooperative for working capital for the 2005 coffee harvest. The continued practice of sustainable agriculture by PPKGO will ensure that the buffer zone of the Gunung Leuser Ecosystem (over 6,000 hectares) in the Sundaland Hotspot is well maintained and that the threatened species in this important ecosystem can endure. In exchange for participation in the cooperative, the 1,800 participating farmers commit to stop hunting, logging or clearing new forest for agriculture.

REPSA: Rainforest Exquisite Products S.A. is a Bolivian company established in 1997 which focuses on the production and export of sustainable non-timber forest products from Northeast Bolivia. Repsa products include wild harvest Brazil nuts and criollo cacao, organic chocolate-covered brazil nuts and roasted coffee and specialty organic and shade grown coffees from the high Yungas valleys. Repsa exports to Europe, Japan and the United States. In December 2004 Verde Ventures provided a loan of $121,200, to finance REPSA's purchase and export of wild criollo cocoa and brazil nuts from local producer associations.This investment will support REPSA's sustainably harvested cocoa and brazil nuts purchases from 550 association members providing a direct economic incentive for the local population to conserve 40,000 hectares of important woodlands between Noel Kempff Mercado National Park and Isiboro S�cure National Park of the Amazon High Biodiversity Wilderness Area.

Organics still do come from local farmers, and it makes sense to buy local. But in the case of tropical spices, vanilla, and coffee beans, the nearest sources lie halfway around the globe, or at least a continent away. Fortunately, a growing bunch of visionaries are committed to uniting both consumer and provider in a viable arrangement for the greater good. Their company names may not be familiar, but with a little digging, you'll find them a layer or two down the supply chain, grounded in creating both a profitable and highly sustainable organic world.

So the next time you run out of cinnamon, or get the urge for a chocolate fix, consider what paying a few cents more for the organic alternative may do. Spent on the right company, those extra pennies could go into a marketplace that grows not just crops, but ecological and social benefits as well. Now that's some tasty news!

More tasty news: If you'd like to give your shopping cart even greater global impact, I highly recommend reading The Ethical Gourmet, by Jay Weinstein.




Recipes for Organic Spices, Chocolate and Coffee


Copyright © 2006, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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