Challenges and Opportunities Facing the Adoption of Coffee Agroforestry Systems (PART 2)

By Jon Ferguson | January 28, 2020

The first blog entry reviewing the academic paper published in the August 2019 issue of Current Anthropology titled Coffee Landscapes Shaping the Anthropocene: Forced Simplification on a Complex Agroecological Landscape concluded with the general differences between two syndromes of production. This second blog entry will continue to unravel complexities behind the challenges and opportunities facing coffee producers when considering implementation of coffee agroforestry systems.

A lack of scientific research, along with the existing realities of many diverse coffee producing landscapes, discourages many producers from implementing agroforestry systems. Additionally, coffee producer’s environmental, financial, social, and political conditions may not incentivize them to maintain or replant forested areas.

Some misconceptions of coffee agriculture believe a thick, tree canopy covering coffee plants will create a ripe, humid environment that increases the possibility of spore germination. This is definitely apparent in many field situations, but it is also known that only a droplet of water can germinate spores, so even in full sun plantations, morning dew can be enough for rust germination, and reports have been observed on both coffee plots under shade and at full sun that show equal rust intensities (Perfecto, Vandermeer).

The most interesting tidbits of information gleaned from coffee leaf rust and how rust normally spreads via wind. Native and leguminous shade trees on coffee farms and surrounding naturally forested areas serve as windbreakers, helping not only to protect the delicate flowering of coffee plants that help increase opportunity for larger fruit yields, but also help limit the potential for coffee rust spore dispersion, as wind is the most common carrier for coffee rust.  

In addition to wind, the proximity of coffee plants, with more density on technified farms, increases the risk of leaf-to-leaf contact, which is how coffee rust is spread. In addition, the spread of coffee rust intensifies through staff who carry rust spores from plant to plant during picking season, and the lack of natural enemies to combat rust (aka white halo), and the lack of trees to buffer the wind from transmitting spores greater distances. Using fungicides to rid coffee rust has worked short-term in many areas, but the application of fungicides weakens resiliency of the natural ecosystem for combating rust.

From an associated article about coffee leaf rust, Avelino, J., Cristancho, M., Georgiou, S. et al. expand on the impact fungicide applications can have on natural ecosystem resistance to coffee rust. The article states,

Not only is fungicide removing natural enemies of coffee rust, but many of the coffee producers who are struggling financially have limited resources to purchase the recommended amount of fungicides, resulting in many farmers having apply insufficient amounts of fungicides basically rendering the applications ineffective. From an additional research article cited by Vandermeer and Perfecto, titled The coffee rust crises in Colombia and Central America (2008-2013): impacts, plausible causes and proposed solutions, they state, “…most of the Central American coffee farmers, who have reduced economic resources, normally cannot afford this kind of management, particularly during periods of low coffee prices. Inappropriate fungicide application is probably one of the main causes of the uncontrolled expansion of coffee rust (Avelino, J., Cristancho, M., Georgiou, S. et al).

Additional factors to consider when describing challenges of agroforestry practices have been identified through adoption studies citing categories including; preferences, resource endowments, market incentives, biophysical factors, and risk and uncertainty (Pattanayak, S.K., Evan Mercer, D., Sills, E. et al.). There is a full length research article titled Taking stock of agroforestry adoption studies, which you can read if you are so inclined to unpack the scientific approach to agroforestry adoption studies.

Further consideration for pressures on forested landscapes is having a strong market incentive on land that has already been cleared of forest for agricultural production. Unfortunately, the value of deforested land has become greater than forested areas in some parts of the world. Although far from the coffee landscapes of Mexico, the economic value of cleared land over that of forested areas is clearly recognized, particularly in Brazil. Cattle farmers in Brazil’s Novo Progresso region acknowledge and promote the clearing of land for economic growth stating, “The land is made 50, 100, 200 times as valuable once it has been deforested.” (NY Times, August 26, 2019).

Decisions for farmers to practice coffee agroforestry systems typically boils down to very simple business decisions. Is the land under their management or ownership profitable, healthy, and are the markets that incentivize coffee agroforestry systems returning a differentiated market price that inspires farmers to continue to preserve their shade-grown production, or will they find more value elsewhere? At times, the pressures of climate change, global commodity market prices, and the challenges of coffee rust have driven many lifelong coffee workers out of business, fueling communities to migrate away from rural areas into urban landscapes.

In the next blog entry, we will review how trees can address the impact of climate change, coffee rust, and human migration. Stay tuned.

Learn more about Arbor Day Coffee.

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