The future of coffee production is tied to a healthy environment. Climate change poses a threat to the amount of fertile land available for farmers and increases the risk of pests and diseases. Unpredictable weather can also damage and delay harvests.
Yet coffee production is also linked to several environmental issues: water pollution, deforestation, soil degradation, and reduced biodiversity, among others.
There are steps that coffee producers can take to limit their impact on the environment, some of which are relatively easy to implement and also have a positive impact on coffee quality. I spoke to experts from Ipanema Coffees, a group of Brazilian coffee farms, to find out about the eco-friendly practices that they recommend.
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Yellow coffee cherries ripen on the branch. Credit: Ipanema Coffees
Can Coffee Be Ecologically Sustainable?
Antônio Michelotto is an agronomist and the Director of the Technical, Agronomic, and Certifications departments of Ipanema Coffees. He tells me that as a perennial crop, one in which the same plant can be harvested multiple times, coffee has the potential to have a reduced environmental impact. Compare this with sugar cane or soy: every harvest, the producer has to cut down and then replant the crop. This can lead to damaged soil and a lack of wildlife.
With coffee farming, in contrast, Antônio points to the “more efficient usage of water” and potential for animals to live on “very forest-like plantations.” A coffee crop, he argues, naturally generates conditions for wildlife to thrive: shade, trees, and undisturbed soil.
“You don’t have much soil movement, right?” he continues. “You can create a layer of organic protection in the soil, so you have less interference in this natural resource.”
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Ripening coffee cherries on a tree in Brazil. Credit: Ivan Laranjeira Petrich
The Impact of Environmental Conditions on Coffee Quality
Coffee trees can only be as healthy as the ecosystem they are grown in. Antônio Michelotto tells me that certain practices designed to benefit the environment, reduce water pollution, and increase soil quality can also help lead to healthier coffee plants. When this happens, fruits stay on the branch for longer, ripen more evenly, and grow in greater quantities.
That being said, it can be hard to draw a direct line between a certain sustainable activity and an increase in coffee yield or quality. Flávio stresses, “We don’t have specific studies for each activity that we undertake and its impact on the quality of the final product. However, we know that by preserving good environmental conditions and protecting biodiversity, we will create good conditions for the growth of high-quality coffee.”
The view of a Brazilian coffee farm. Credit: Ivan Laranjeira Petrich
Steps Towards a Better Environment & Better Coffee
Unfortunately, poor management practices and over-farming can, at times, damage the local environment: soil degradation, deforestation, reduced wildlife… However, there are several steps that coffee farms can take to reduce their crop’s environmental footprint. Many of these can also improve coffee quality.
Coffee farms with shade trees and nearby forest cover tend to have significantly higher amounts of wildlife, from monkeys to birds and insects. In turn, this can benefit coffee crops.
As an example, Antônio tells me that agroforestry is associated with increasing spider populations. Spiders are also the natural predators of the coffee leaf miner, a moth that damages the leaves of coffee plants in Latin America. Adding evidence to the theory, outbreaks of the pest have been correlated with the removal of shade trees.
The eventual defoliation caused by these outbreaks reduces both yield and quality, as the plant is unable to photosynthesize and convert sunlight into energy. In other words, agroforestry can help protect coffee plants from pests that could damage the crop.
In addition, depending on the trees planted, it can add much-needed nutrients to the soil, help prevent soil erosion, and provide an additional income source for producers.
A coffee crop surrounded by forest at Fazenda Rio Verde in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Credit: Ipanema Coffees
2. Water Conservation & Treatment
Water pollution is one of the hardest and most expensive environmental issues to tackle on the coffee farm. Water-based mechanical washers: these machines remove leaves, sticks, and other foreign materials. As a result, a considerable amount of organic material ends up in the residual water. Antônio tells me that this can lead to it containing damagingly high levels of nutrients, especially potassium.
Similar contamination happens when water is used to depulp the coffee, i.e. remove the fruit from the seed before drying. (It’s worth noting that this does not happen in natural processing since the beans dry with the fruit still attached.)
Run-off and careless management of used water can introduce these high potassium levels to waterways and fields. When this happens, the contaminated water threatens marine life and poses a risk to the health of local communities.
Antônio stresses the importance of knowing the chemical composition of the water being used for coffee production in order to avoid contamination. “Here [at Ipanema],” he tells me, “we monitor our water by performing chemical analyses.”
It is possible to reuse water on the coffee farm, but this should only be done after it has been treated to remove the organic compounds. Wet-mill equipment manufacturers produce machines capable of treating water. It is also possible, on medium-sized farms, to build closed-filtration systems. A chemical analysis after treatment will then determine if the water is ready to be reused.
Freshly picked cherries being washed. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
3. Integrated Pest & Disease Management
Heavy fertilizer use can exacerbate water pollution and cause damage to important microorganisms within the soil. Yet without fertilizer, coffee crops are more vulnerable to pests and diseases. They tend to be weaker and may produce coffee at a lower yield. For coffee producers, this can be a difficult balance.
Flávio Franceschi is Environmental Analyst at Ipanema Coffees. He tells me that Ipanema Coffees opts for integrated pest and disease management to ensure that coffee quality remains high without causing damage to the environment. This is the use of multiple techniques to keep pests and diseases as a low level (rather than completely eradicate them). It can include the responsible use of synthetic pesticides but also relies heavily on preventative practices, monitoring, traps, and natural pesticides.
Flávio says, “We do a lot of monitoring and a lot of plant analysis to determine the required level of fertilizer, of manure, of pesticides. There is a whole lot of criteria that we use to ensure as little chemical control as possible. [Chemical pesticides] would be the last option.”
Doing so, he explains, “guarantees we can save resources and have a lower environmental impact as well. In the long run, this increases productivity.”
Ripe organic coffee cherries on a farm in Brazil. Credit: Nicholas Yamada
4. Erosive Process Control
Soil that is more exposed to wind and rain is more vulnerable to erosion. A lack of extensive root systems can further exacerbate this. Flávio tells me that when new coffee plots are planted, they are particularly vulnerable. The plants do not yet have well-developed roots nor full foliage which would protect the soil from the elements.
Eroded soil is less fertile, as nitrogen, potassium, and other compounds are lost. Farmers often have to spend more on fertilizer to counteract this. However, the degraded soil means that this fertilizer can end up being washed out of the soil and into local waterways.
Soil erosion kickstarts a wicked cycle, in which local wildlife, waterways, and the coffee plants themselves suffer.
Agroforestry systems can help, yet protecting the soil doesn’t always require towering trees. Flávio says, “We grow the coffee together with brachiaria [signalgrass]. So, we allow brachiaria to grow between the lines of coffee in order to protect the coffee trees and also prevent soil exposure. In that way, we prevent soil erosion.”
View of different coffee farms in Brazil. Credit: Nicholas Yamada
5. Wildlife Diversification
A diverse ecosystem supports the growth of healthy coffee trees. Flávio highlights the value of bees for both the environment and the quality of the coffee crops, stressing that they are “good indicators of our air quality and even environmental quality.”
Arabica is self-pollinating, meaning that it doesn’t need bees to produce fruit. However, studies have shown that the presence of bees on a coffee farm can significantly increase yields. By some estimates, this can be up to 20-25%.
Flávio told me that Ipanema Coffees has created four areas dedicated to honey production inside the forests near their coffee farms, where they have placed around 120 beehives. He tells me that they have “observed that the bees circulate in a radius of 2-3 km,” which allows them to decide where best to place the beehives.
For smaller coffee farms, beehives also offer an additional benefit: farmers can sell the honey and increase their income.
Inspecting an apiary on a coffee farm. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre
6. Sustainable Practices at Every Stage
Flávio reminds me that many other agricultural practices can harm the environment and that these are not exclusive to coffee. Domestic sewage, chemical pesticides, car batteries, and more can have a negative impact on the environment.
Sustainable energy sources, recycling, proper disposal of waste, avoiding single-use plastics: all of these can contribute to a more environmentally friendly coffee farm.
Solar panels in use at Fazenda Rio Verde, Brazil. Credit: Ipanema Coffees
Quality coffee and environmental sustainability do not have to be separate goals. The two aims can complement each other. Plant biodiversity improves soil structure and quality, beekeeping improves pollination and therefore plant yield, and agroforestry helps to protect crops from pests. Water conservation and treatment has a significant impact on the local community, while also ensuring that coffee is produced with clean water.
Some of these steps might be challenging for smallholder producers: not all farms can invest in water treatment facilities like at Ipanema Coffees, nor in the company’s solar panels. Yet something as simple as not cutting down the grass between coffee trees is an easy, affordable, and effective way to increase environmental sustainability and coffee quality at the same time.
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Written by Ivan Petrich. All interviews translated from Portuguese by the writer. Feature photo: Coffee cherries at Fazenda Rio Verde, Minas Gerais, Brazil. Feature photo credit: Ipanema Coffees
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