In 2012, Central America was hit hard by a brutal outbreak of La Roya, coffee leaf rust. The result? An industry-wide crisis. Coffee from this region fell in both quantity and quality and low global coffee prices made matters worse.
The thing is, this is just nature. As a third generation Guatemalan (Jutiapa) coffee producer and agricultural engineer, I am aware that in agricultural practice, ecosystems can suffer imbalances in very short periods of time. And establishing and protecting crops during these periods can be extremely difficult.
One common problem farmers face is attacks on plants by endemic pest species. Throw climate change into the mix as well and you have a recipe for disaster – crops become more fragile than ever.
In order to protect their crops and their business from these increasingly unpredictable dangers, the common solution is the use of chemical pesticides. Personally, I feel that this isn’t a particularly good solution; year by year, the use of pesticides is shown to have a limited effect when it comes to protecting coffee plants from their natural threats.
The coffee flower. Credit: Flickr, ZeePack
Producers must learn from these mistakes. We need a new approach.
So what’s the solution? Is there a natural alternative for protecting our coffee?
We’re pleased to tell you that there is, and that it requires recruiting a little thing you may not think of when it comes to coffee: bees.
Counting the number of eggs/offspring. Credit: L. Pimentel
A Natural Partnership: Coffee Farming & Beekeeping
Bees are living wonders, having been around doing their thing for, oh, 100 million years or so – and they can be of crucial help in the coffee world, too.
Well, they’re nature’s primary pollinator and, as luck would have it, perfectly adapted to the conditions found on coffee plantations.
Arabica varietals are predominantly self-pollinating, meaning that pollination occurs before the plant’s flower even blossoms. However, what should be focussed on is the small numbers of varietals that are cross-pollinated by insects, wind, or gravity.
Often, within certain varietals, you’ll find there are some trees exhibiting distinctive characteristics despite supposedly being of the same variety as the other trees. This happens because pollination by bees can lead to new, hybrid varietals.
Why’s this important? Because in the future, these varietals could be better adapted to specific local climates.
Yellow catuai and red catuai on the same branch – clearly a case of cross-pollination. Credit: Gold Mountain Coffee Growers
New Varietals: Key to Coffee’s Future
Climate change and leaf rust are just two of the significant challenges facing the coffee-producing world. If, as producers, we’re to survive then our methods must adapt and evolve as crops change over time. We need to be aware that many varietals we’ve cultivated for years will eventually disappear and be replaced by new varietals. Sad it may be, but it’s inevitable.
The best, most ecologically sustainable way to discover new varietals is to do so naturally. This means welcoming cross-pollination and a wider variety of plants (the latter being both necessary for and a result of the former). But even this must be done carefully: don’t import seeds or plants to farms that they aren’t native to the region.
The perfect solution to this? Bees.
Credit: Gold Mountain Coffee Growers
I have a hunch that the future implementation of bees within coffee plantations will help to ensure that new varietals will continue to emerge little by little. These will be stronger plants specifically adapted to their environment – to the weather, climate, insect populations, and more.
The Byproducts of Beekeeping
And this isn’t the only positive effect of beekeeping. In addition to stronger, newer varietals of coffee plants, the bees will produce high-quality by-products that farmers can use to supplement their income.
Keep it natural and keep it simple. It’s better for the coffee, it’s better for the planet, and it’s better for the consumer.
Calling all producers and farmers – we’d love to hear your thoughts on natural alternatives to pesticides in coffee farming. Do you use bees? Anything else? Let us know in the comments, on facebook, and on instagram.
Translated from Spanish by T. Schrock, and edited by S. McCusker.
Feature Photo Credit: Bob Peterson.
Perfect Daily Grind.