The demand for organic spices is growing. Due to the high proportion of imports and the growing risk of weather-related crop failures, even the procurement of conventional spices can sometimes be a challenge. This is all the more true for organic goods, as plants are more susceptible to total failure. Then there is the problem of residues. Many producers therefore rely on contract farming.

Cooking is also subject to fashion. For example, many ingredients that appear in almost every recipe today were only familiar to passionate hobby cooks two decades ago. Today, many Germans can hardly imagine what they used to do without artichokes, olives or chili. Spices such as ginger or turmeric have also only been popular in Germany for a few years – and are increasingly in demand in organic quality.

A classic among the dried spices in Germany is pepper, which accounted for 42 percent of spice imports in 2019 according to the Agrar-Informations-Gesellschaft (AMI). Cloves, nutmeg, vanilla and cinnamon follow.

Compliance with strict guidelines is essential for a raw material that is neither washed nor heated. The same applies to organic spices as to all organically produced food: a prerequisite for trade is certification in accordance with the standards of the EU Organic Regulation by a recognized inspection body.

Pesticide residues are found time and again

Organic spices may therefore not be treated with ionising radiation or fumigated. No chemical synthetic pesticides or artificial fertilizers may be used during cultivation. In addition, manufacturers do not use release agents such as silicon dioxide (E551), other silicates or magnesium carbonate (E504), flavour enhancers or aromas.

The products are regularly tested by independent bodies for microbial contamination and pesticide residues, among other things. Complaints are repeatedly lodged in the process. The background is often contamination of the harvest by conventional agriculture.

In the case of spice cultures overseas, monitoring pesticide use is more difficult than in domestic fields. While many culinary herbs such as dill, parsley or chives are also grown in Germany, most spice plants are imported from India and the Middle East, because they need a lot of sun and warmth as well as certain soil nutrients to thrive and produce the desired ingredients. And the list of pesticides used in global spice cultivation is long.

The spice trade has changed dramatically

In addition, there are traditional processing practices in the countries of origin which are sometimes not questioned when converting to organic production, such as drying the plants on the side of busy roads or in houses sprayed with insecticides as a malaria prophylaxis. All this can lead to pesticide levels being found during the inspection that make it impossible to market organic products.

Many producers of organic spices therefore rely on contract farming. Overall, the spice trade has changed considerably over the past two decades. Whereas traditionally the goods were only roughly cleaned and shipped in the countries of origin and then processed in the countries of purchase, it is now common practice in the organic sector to screen the goods in the country of origin. To this end, independent producers in more and more countries are joining forces in cooperation to purchase machinery and organize laboratory tests.

“With spices, organic is not quality per se”

These cooperations are often the point of contact for manufacturers for contract farming, from which both sides benefit, as trade stages via agents or brokers are eliminated. If the manufacturers know their suppliers well and are in regular contact with them, this serves the quality assurance of the products. The Berlin-based Spicebar GmbH therefore works together with a cooperative in Cambodia, for example, which operates a partner farm there and grows Kampot pepper. “Especially in the spice sector, organic is not quality per se,” says the manufacturer’s website.

Too many factors influence spice quality, such as sunlight, temperatures, rainfall, soil conditions, the age of the plants, tradition and experience as well as harvesting conditions, drying and storage. But, says Spicebar: “Those who search intensively, help producers with certification, accept setbacks and start projects together will always get good quality in organic”.

Sensory and laboratory controls already at the place of origin

The organic spice manufactory in Wolpertshausen also works with smallholder cooperatives in various climate zones. Cinnamon and cloves come from Zanzibar, black pepper from around 1,000 smallholders from Kerala in southern India. “In all projects, our employees take care of quality assurance during cultivation, harvesting and processing. They look at the harvest, carry out sensory checks on site and arrange for chemical analyses,” reports Sebastian Bühler, Managing Director of Ecoland Herbs and Spices GmbH, founded in 2000.

In addition to contract farming, however, the majority of spices are traded on the free market worldwide with certified suppliers and brokerage firms. Organic contract farming is also dependent on this market: Production quantities that exceed the contracts, as well as harvest failures of contract partners are compensated for through free trade. In principle, there are sufficient organic goods available in the combination of contract farming and free spice market. However, supply bottlenecks can arise not only in the event of crop failures or contamination, but also, most recently, as a result of the corona crisis.

Supply bottlenecks due to corona

For the spice factory in Wolpertshausen, contract farming, where manufacturers buy the entire harvest from their production partners, has unexpected advantages in the corona crisis: “This means we have larger stocks and no bottlenecks yet, which are now occurring in many places due to restrictions in international trade,” says Sebastian Bühler.

“Deliveries from overseas unfortunately take a long time or simply do not arrive; therefore our warehousing is extremely stretched,” says Andrea Rolshausen, managing director of Baobab Gewürzhandelsgesellschaft mbH, based in Weßling, Bavaria. The procurement of raw materials is currently still working “with a little patience and workarounds”.

However, in the blog of her online shop the spice trader is already preparing the customers for price increases, which are partly due to corona-related transport problems, but also to raw material shortages. “In India and Indonesia, the lockdowns occurred during the harvest season, which meant that in some cases it was not possible to harvest at all,” says Rolshausen.