Environmental sustainability can be achieved with simple techniques in coffee growing.
If you can’t start your day without your favorite cup of coffee, you are hardly alone.
Global demand for the caffeine-rich inky beverage has never been higher. Within just 10 years from 2000 to 2010, the planet’s coffee production grew by 0.5% annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. That translated into a whopping 7 million tons, or 117 million bags, of coffee by 2010.
And figures have been steadily on the rise. In the United States, the home of Starbucks, coffee drinkers consume three cups of coffee each day on average, based on statistics by the National Coffee Association. Most coffee is consumed in developed nations yet produced in developing nations around the equatorial belt from South America to Southeast Asia.
Many of these nations are struggling to meet growing demand for their coffee crops, especially in the face of climate change whose effects are starting to be felt on sensitive coffee plants. In an attempt to produce higher yields on limited amounts of land along environmentally sustainable lines, more and more growers are resorting to advanced technologies and smart farming practices.
Automatized farming tools such as sensors that measure levels of moisture in the soil and air are becoming widely used. At the same time, unmanned drones serve as eyes in the sky for cultivators, helping coffee growers assess the health of their crops, monitor wildlife around plantations and perform other vital tasks to protect and increase coffee crops.
Technological advances are also making inroads in previously destitute rural communities where coffee cultivation has increased livelihoods. In Sri Lanka and Uganda, drones are used to monitor pests and diseases that may harm crops. Drones equipped with near-infrared light sensors can detect stress on crops caused by insects. This technique works better than naked eyes.
Prior detection of such hazards before an outbreak can prevent extensive damage to plants and stop them from spreading to other plantations and agricultural farmlands. Tests on data acquired from unmanned-drones also showed that they are highly reliable. As a result, such data can assist cultivators and policymakers alike in improving crop yields without further harming the environment.
However, technology alone is not a catch-all solution. In many traditional agricultural communities locals continue to practice monoculture, or a cultivation of a single crop, and they often use chemical fertilizers and pesticides intensively to control pests and prevent plant diseases from spreading. Such practices can have environmental consequences far beyond their intended effects.
In the case of coffee, sun-grown cultivation is often employed to produce Robusta beans, which as their name suggests come from more robust species of coffee plants. By removing all native trees from large areas, farmers can plant coffee plants at higher densities and so achieve higher crop yields. However, this practice has led to increased deforestation in many countries where coffee is grown on a large scale.
More sensitive Arabica beans, on the other hand, thrive in the shade of trees, while the usually healthier soil in forests provides additional benefits for coffee plants grown this way. As a result, shade-growing coffee plants can be a sustainable practice since trees in forests are left intact, allowing for native species of flora and fauna to thrive.
In Ethiopia, where coffee has been grown in organically for thousands of years, “all 19 understory bird species we sampled in the forest were present in the coffee farms too, and that just doesn’t happen elsewhere,” says Cagan H. Sekercioglu, a biologist at the University of Utah who conducted a study on the environmental impacts of coffee growing in an area of the country.
Encouragingly, more and more locals in rural communities elsewhere too are becoming aware of the need to engage in sustainable farming practices. In Thailand, for instance, government departments and environmental organizations are helping local coffee growers in mountainous areas to save local forests. Many areas in northern Thailand lie at higher altitudes and so are suitable for the cultivation of Arabica coffee plants, which favor an altitude of 1,000m-1,200m and can thrive only within a fairly limited range of temperatures between 18C and 25C.
In these mountainous areas, many disadvantaged hill tribe communities have switched from growing opium poppies illegally to cultivating coffee plants. In the process, they have adopted more sustainable agricultural practices. With technological improvements, local plantations could boost not only yields but also livelihoods.
In Tak, a province in western Thailand, a village of ethnic minority Hmong people is located next to a wildlife sanctuary. The protected area is where a major river, Mae Klong, originates. Intensive monoculture by villagers drove large parts of surrounding forests to disappear, leaving deforested patches in its wake.
To help these forests recover, a local environmental organization has been collaborating with local communities to promote organic Arabica coffee farming under native trees. “I hope that by planting coffee,” a local Hmong villager noted in an interview, “we will get back the abundance of our forests.”
Advanced agricultural practices employing modern technologies can likewise be helpful in saving local forests and communities. Whether the beans for your favorite cups of coffee are grown by help of hi-tech tools on large plantations or by small communities in remote areas matters less than this: that your coffee is produced in an environmentally sustainable manner.