Organic coffee, though genuinely profitable, is still a niche commodity meaning most plantations are still using pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers to increase production. Increased global warming has brought with it multiple challenges for growers who often lack appropriate bio-management strategies, resorting to short term solutions for a bigger paycheck they desperately need. Over time, these short-sighted practices do harm to the environment and health of the farmers and laborers; as the second most valuable traded commodity, large coffee corporations procuring the majority of the harvest have a long term ethical obligation to the people of the regions they buy from. Substantial investment must be made in education and alternative methods of pest control and growth strategies for a changing future that may not be hospitable to growing the coffee we know and love today.
During the majority of its development in Central America, coffee had few severe pest issues. However, over the last few decades blight and deterioration on coffee plantations have been increasing. As an example, rising temperatures in higher altitude areas where the arabica beans are grown, are providing optimal breeding and grazing for the berry borer beetle, a tenacious pest that is hard to rid via insecticide, with a single plant potentially hosting three to five generations of beetles. That being said, farmers in Costa Rica have been using birds known as warblers who can rid plantations of up to 50% of the beetle population. Coffee rust, a fungus which has decimated the harvests of many farms due to an overall rise in temperature, is being naturally controlled using a variety of methods including different types of fungus which destroy the harmful leaf rust, and at the same time, cause no damage to the environment.
Although using synthetic pesticides have led to much higher yields, a hard to resist result for cash strapped farmers, it’s also come with its own problems such as pesticide resistance, higher production costs, and long term health consequences for the growers, the field workers, and their families. These chemicals slowly strip the soil of natural vegetation and the animal life crucial for the nourishment and balance of the environment, causing the farmers to resort to using an ever increasing amount of pesticides and artificial fertilizers.
Companies like Intelligentsia have shown real leadership in the industry, demonstrating that it’s possible to have a successful brand while actively promoting healthful sustainability from the bottom up. They guarantee prices set far above international fair trade standards, and pay the growers directly, allowing them to flourish and maintain high ecological standards. Their buying team cumulatively spends “over 365 days each year at the source, working alongside the farmers who grow their coffee.” They aren’t just coffee purveyors. They actually take “insight from the practices and expertise in preparation and processing garnered from their work around the globe and apply them to each of their Direct Trade coffees, making them the absolute best they can be.”
Quality education and compensation for workers in all areas of coffee production is key to the health of the industry as they can identify potential problems long before they become pathological. Dr Peter Baker, a senior scientist at CAB International (the center for agriculture and biosciences) raised a few important points regarding the coffee rust epidemic of 2012. “There was a proportional lack of investment in research and development in such a high value industry, as well as a lack of investment in new varieties in key coffee producing countries such as Colombia.” However, scientists are experimenting with artificial support systems for coffee plants. These systems produce shade and regulate the humidity and light levels in an effort to maximize the effects of beneficial microflora and fauna as an alternative to chemical pesticides.
Although the work is complex, we are seeing an increase in intuitive mobile technology applications such as The Plant Doctor, making education, annotation, and cataloguing easier, and more accessible to everyone in the coffee supply chain.
Designing pest suppressive multistrata perennial crop systems
C.Staver, F. Guharay, D. Monterroso, and R.G. Muschler
Department of Ecological Agriculture, 7170 CATIE Turrialba, Costa Rica