April 6, 2016

The White Stem Borer: A Threat to the Nepalese Coffee Industry?


Nepalese coffee could just be the next big thing. If if the industry doesn’t die out as a result of climate change, that is.

This South Asian country nestled between China and India is more famous for its Himalayan mountains than for its coffee beans. Yet in recent years, its high prices have encouraged many Nepalese smallholder farmers to shift from growing millet and wheat to growing coffee. And even domestic consumption is developing dramatically.

Yet the white stem borer insect, born of climate change and poor management practices, is putting the blooming Nepalese coffee industry at risk before it’s even become mainstream.

SEE ALSO: Is Coffee the Answer to Extreme Poverty in Burundi?

Coffee farm in Nepal

A coffee farm in the Kaski Region of Nepal.

The History of Nepalese Coffee

Coffee was introduced by a Nepalese national, Hira Giri, who brought it back from Myanmar in 1938. Yet the sector didn’t really develop then.

Nor did it develop much when it was reintroduced from India in the early 1980s to increase soil stability and reduce surface water runoff. With little training in coffee production, and similarly low levels of infrastructure, the industry remained stagnant for many years.

Yet in recent times, the government, alongside Swiss NGO Helvetas, has provided technical and financial support to farmers. As a result, coffee cultivation has gradually spread to about 40 districts in the Middle Hills, the region between the Himalayas and the Tarai Mountain Range. And it is commercially farmed in 20 of those regions.

Bourbon coffee variety coffee tree

One of the Bourbon coffee trees in the Kaski region of Nepal.

Coffee Farming in Nepal Today

The majority of coffee farmers in Nepal’s Middle Hill region are smallholders who have between 10-50 plants. These are generally resource-poor farmers planting on marginal land who cannot afford fertilizer or pesticides – meaning that the majority of production is “organic”.

Yet coffee production is both helping to reduce soil degradation and providing up to 25% more income than maize and other main food crops. The industry may be small and new, but it offers a lot to Nepalese farmers.

coffee farmers discussing production

A Nepalese farmer, Bed Prasad Poudyal, discusses coffee processing with me.

The coffee prices in Nepal are relatively high compared with other countries. Figures taken from the International Coffee Organisation show that the cost for high-grade specialty coffee (SCAA score of 80) from India was $5.75 per kg, while Nepalese coffee of average grade (SCAA score of 70) sold at $7.36 per kg in August 2015. It is this price boom which is encouraging many farmers to plant more coffee on their land.

international coffee organisation composite indicator price

ICO Composite Indicator Price. Credi: ICO

Cupping Nepalese Coffee

With its comparatively high prices, resource-poor farming, and unestablished status, you might wonder if Nepalese coffee is worth drinking.

On a recent trip to Nepal, I bought a kg of green coffee from farmer Bed Prasad Poudyal and took it home with me. I then took it to McCabe’s Coffee, a micro-roaster in Wicklow, Ireland, where it was cupped with six other coffees around the world.

The result? Well, in the words of Stephen McCabe, Managing Director of McCabe’s Coffee,  “It was a sweet coffee with good body, hints of fruit, and a pleasant aftertaste”. He was surprised by the quality – and I had an equally positive response to it. I found it to have delicate floral notes and to be almost like tea. Even though the price was relatively high, I would definitely bring back more from another visit.

Now, of course, cupping only one coffee won’t get an objective analysis of a country’s coffee. We can’t extrapolate from that to speculate about the state of other Nepalese coffees. Yet what we can say is that coffee of this standard does exist in Nepal – and that the country has the potential to grow similarly good coffee in the future.

Cupping nepalese coffee at McCabe coffee

Stephen McCabe of McCabe’s Coffee cupping the Nepali coffee.

A Changing Climate Leads to Coffee Pests

Yet this potential is at risk.

Bed Prasad Poudyal didn’t just sell me a kg of coffee; he also gave me a tour of his 2.5-acre organic coffee farm. It’s located in the mountains above the city of Pokhara, roughly 1300 metres above sea level. Bed grows a mixture of trees, from lentils to oranges, that provide shade for his coffee, alongside keeping bees.

nepalese coffee farmer

Bed shares his experience of coffee farming in Nepal.

Despite Bed’s good coffee and good farming practices, he has been suffering from the impact of rising temperatures. He’s not the only farmer to have noticed its effect; in fact, local fruit farmers who grow their produce in polytunnel greenhouses are having to increase the height of these polytunnels to mitigate against the heat. But it’s having a very specific consequence on coffee farming.

Bed brought me down to the bottom of his plot so I could see what it means for him and his livelihood. We climbed down some steep slopes and then we reached what he wanted to show me: coffee trees that had ceased to produce any fruit.

The White Stem Borer: A Threat to Nepalese Coffee

Bed broke off a branch of one of the barren trees to reveal the problem: the white stem borer beetle (Xylotrechus quadripes).

This flying beetle had burrowed its way through the branches, laying eggs in the cracks and grooves of the bark. When the eggs had hatched ten months later, the larvae then ate into the branch. As a result, the tree had stopped producing fruit and, eventually, even the leaves had all died.

The white stem borer beetle thrives in Nepal, not just surviving but increasing in number and region. Until recently, it only affected coffee plants at lower altitudes. However, due to the rise in temperature, it is being seen up to 1300 m.a.s.l. – where Bed’s farm is. He said that they hadn’t experienced this problem five years ago, but now all of the farms in the local area have been affected.

This particular pest is very difficult to deal with in an organic environment since pesticides can’t be used. The recommended organic treatment is to cut off the affected branch and burn it, a practice that Bed now follows.

Yet Bed explained that the small-scale farmers, with only a few coffee plants, typically don’t have any training. As of such, they don’t know that they have to burn the branches after removing them to kill the larvae – and so this pest lives, and the problem persists all over Nepal.

effect of the white stem borer beetle

effect of the white stem borer

The effect of the white stem borer beetle.

The white stem borer beetle poses a significant risk to Nepalese coffee farmers. Let us hope that education surrounding this pest spreads throughout the region – so that this country’s coffee has the opportunity to reach its full potential.

And in the meantime, if you have a chance to try Nepalese coffee, we fully encourage you to do so.

Edited by T. Newton.

Perfect Daily Grind.