Agroforestry has been used by coffee farmers throughout history and now could be a solution to one of the industry’s largest and most time-sensitive issues.
From the first coffee beans found in the forests of Ethiopia to the dense jungles of Brazil, coffee plants have traditionally thrived in shade. Over time, demand for greater yields saw growers plant their crops in full sunlight, but it came at an environmental cost: the clearing of forests reduced flora and fauna, lower climate regulation, and greater soil erosion.
Now, with the climate crisis creating a need greater for immediate change, Ezra Remer, Co-Founder of the Dominica Coffee Revitalization Initiative (DCRI) says it’s time to revert back to agroforestry, one of the oldest land management practices, to address today’s climate problems.
“When I first talked to farmers on Dominica, which is an eastern Caribbean island nation, they would describe this tree that their grandfathers or elders had planted next to the coffee, and they would recognise that the coffee always did better under the tree,” says Remer.
“When I returned to the United States and did research, I found out that this tree is scientifically called the Inga edulis tree, which is a nitrogen-fixing tree that was used across the tropics and even now, is considered cutting-edge agroforestry.”
These trees are considered some of the best for agroforestry, the practice of growing crops underneath trees or shrubs, due to their ability to produce nitrogen. Bacteria and microorganisms that grow in the root systems break down the nitrogen in the surrounding soil, which plants absorb and use for photosynthesis and growth.
Besides being natural storers of carbon dioxide, Remer says nitrogen-fixing trees can also help combat climate change through naturally speeding up the growth of plants and forests, encouraging reforestation, and reducing the need for chemical fertilisers that degrade water and soil quality.
“Soil quality is another huge benefit from planting any type of trees. Having healthier soil means it can retain more moisture, and combined with the roots of the trees, ensures the soil stays in place,” Remer says.
“This is important because it saves lives. With the climate crisis, we are going to have more extreme weather events which, without these trees, will lead to more landslides and soil erosions, which have already killed so many people.”
Planting trees near coffee crops also has the ability to create microclimates, or atmospheres that differ from the overall climate.
“Trees really keep things the way they were supposed to be. Having this microclimate keeps conditions either cooler during the day or warm at night – it keeps the temperature stable,” Remer says. “This way the plants are less affected by the fluctuations in the weather that are occurring due to climate change.”
With a more stable climate, Remer says it’s also likely that more agroforestry practices will reattract a greater volume of flora and fauna to farming regions.
“Agroforestry is like a puzzle. You’ve got to figure out what interacts with each other better. It’s like creating a modified solution that brings specific economic and ecological benefits,” says Remer.
Bringing it to Brazil
Lucas Gomes, Researcher at The Federal University of Viçosa, and his team have also realised the potential of agroforestry.
In their study titled ‘Agroforestry systems can mitigate the impacts of climate change on coffee production: A spatially explicit assessment in Brazil’, Gomes and his team propose that through using agroforestry in Arabic coffee growing, the effects of rising temperatures from climate change can be reduced, maintaining at least 75 per cent of the area suitable for coffee production.
“In the last decade we can see how the climate has become warmer and the Arabic coffee production in marginal areas is diminishing in some areas in Brazil,” says Gomes.
“This monoculture practice of growing coffee that we have been using will no longer be sustainable into the future.”
Gomes’ study used a MaxEnt model, which predicts scenarios to assess whether areas without agroforestry systems would still be suitable for coffee production by 2050.
The model was based on 4200 coffee plantations samples in the Southeast mountains of Brazil, where altitudes vary from 400 to almost 3000 metres above sea level. To recreate real-world scenarios, the MaxEnt model also used future projections of environmental factors such as precipitation, temperature and bioclimatic variables.
It was found that by 2050, without agroforestry, at least 60 per cent of coffee producing regions would become unsuitable for growing due to increasing temperatures brought about by climate change.
To simulate the future impact of shade trees on daily temperatures, the study then gathered the average temperature for each month in 2050 and increased the minimum temperature by 1°C and decreased the maximum temperature by 3°C.
It was found that by introducing 50 per cent shade cover through agroforestry, up to 75 per cent of growing land was still suitable by 2050.
“Besides maintaining viable coffee growing regions, we are also studying how agroforestry can change water dynamics. During the last three decades the farmers in the region have selected several tree species that present different root system and do not compete for water with coffee plants. The roots of coffee plants can reach the first metre of soil, but tree roots are able to reach two to three metres deep.” says Gomes.
“Studies shows that native trees from our region can pump water from underground, replenishing the first metre of soil. And when there is greater soil moisture and less evaporation, this will be helpful, especially with increasing temperatures.”
Gomes says more studies are being completed using drone technology to produce 3D maps of Brazil’s coffee producing regions and commonly used shade trees.
“Then we can create a model which predicts the best density of trees for the region, combined with the amount of sun. Even just studying how the tree will grow throughout the year will be helpful for developing the agroforestry practice,” says Gomes.
“In our mountain region, each agroforestry system is unique, and the selection and density of trees must be done in cooperation with the local farmers. Is it better to grow coffee with 100 trees per hectare? The selection of trees density depends on several factors, but we are working to better advise the farmers. And with this new database of shade trees, we can work with farmers to plan what the best way to plant trees in a specific area.”
Barriers to change
With research backing the potential of agroforestry practices, Gomes says the next step is gaining the government’s financial support to help protect Brazil’s coffee producing regions and farmer advocacy.
“People need to know more about agroforestry systems. They need to know these systems exist, and that they work,” says Gomes. “We need the government to support the protection of Brazil’s nature and its resources. With a financial incentive or by selling their coffee for a better price without pesticides, it could help to expand the adoption of agroforestry.”
Currently, Remer says the economic incentives aren’t supportive of agroforestry, with some producers more concerned about increasing yield.
“It’s like humans are better with steroids but it’s not always good for us – you get the end product you want but it’s not the best path to get there,” Remer says. “Farmers want to make the best money out of an already poor coffee commodity price, so they’re just trying to survive. It’s the global systems in place and not the farmers who are just trying to survive.”
With any sustainable practice, Remer says something must be given up for long-term gain.
“You’re reducing the yield per plant, and the total amount of plants because instead of having plants right next to each other, you have a shade tree between them,” says Remer.
“More countries are realising it’s worth the investment, but farmers who live harvest to harvest are much more interested in getting food on the table for their families than they are in environmental conservation and quality of coffee when they’re trying to survive.”
To test its worth, Remer hopes to use agroforestry to rehabilitate the small island of Dominica, one of the worst impacted by Hurricane Maria in 2017. According to the United Nations, nearly 100 per cent of agriculture production was destroyed. Remer hopes that by starting to plant high-yielding disease- and climate-resilient hybrid varietals from World Coffee Research on test sites, beginning in 2022, Dominica will be a model for others to follow.
“We plan to test these different species of trees with hybrid coffee varieties at diverse elevation levels. We will also add variables such as changing combinations and permutations to see what is most effective in the means of yield per plant and quality of the coffee,” Remer says.
He believes that by using this multi-pronged approach with traditional agroforestry practices and modern hybrid plants, there is a sustainable way forward for the coffee industry.
“There’s so much potential for agroforestry to do good for the environment and good for the people. Using agroforestry in the coffee industry can be a blueprint for how we treat other crops and how we mitigate climate change,” says Remer.
“We can track this practice throughout our world’s history, and I believe this is the way into the future.”
This article was first published in the September/October edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.