June 8, 2022

Can agroforestry help to secure the future of the coffee industry?


The International Coffee Organisation’s April 2022 report estimates that global coffee consumption will exceed production by some 3.1 million 60kg bags in 2022. To add to this, many of the world’s top coffee-producing countries have seen falling production levels over the past few months, including Vietnam and Colombia. 

For many, however, the threat in the longer-term is the advent of climate change. It’s believed that in the coming decades, this will cause the amount of land suitable for coffee cultivation around the world to fall. 

So, can anything be done to boost coffee production and safeguard the future of the coffee industry? Well, one of the many solutions that has been proposed in recent years is agroforestry – a way of helping coffee producers mitigate the impact of climate production. 

In this article, Caroline Dangléant, a journalist at CIRAD, explores how agroforestry can benefit coffee production more widely, and looks at success stories from the BREEDCAFS project in Vietnam, Cameroon, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. Read on to find out what she says.

You may also like our article on introducing climate-resilient coffee hybrids in Vietnam.

farmer tending to seedlings

What is agroforestry?

To put it simply, agroforestry is the practice of growing crops (including coffee) among trees and woodland. 

This has a number of benefits for coffee production, such as providing shade for the plants. Historically, many coffee hybrids were designed to be grown under full sunlight, which increases overall yields. However, growing coffee under shade has a number of benefits for quality when practised properly. 

At CIRAD, much of the recent research has focused on using more diverse coffee varieties and improving farming techniques, as well as assessing the performance of new varieties under shade.

For the last twenty years in particular, CIRAD and ECOM have been working to develop climate-resilient arabica hybrid varieties which are more suitable to be grown under shade. These varieties are ideal for smallholder producers who use agroforestry farming techniques.

In order to determine the performance and quality of these hybrid varieties, the BREEDCAFS project (BREEDing Coffee for AgroForestry Systems) has been established. This project assesses how these hybrids perform over a long-term basis on smallholder farms. 

The EU-funded BREEDCAFS project is co-ordinated by CIRAD, and partners with a number of companies and other organisations – including illycaffè, Eurofins, Northern Mountainous Agro-forestry Science Institute (NOMAFSI), the Agricultural Genetics Institute (AGI), and IRAD in Cameroon.

coffee farm in natural setting

What are the benefits of agroforestry systems?

There are a number of advantages for coffee farmers who use agroforestry techniques. For starters, in terms of quality, agroforestry can provide coffee plants with shade from the sun, subsequently lowering temperatures. 

This in turn slows down the cherry maturation phase as the coffee grows, allowing more sugars, lipids, and desirable volatile flavour compounds to develop. Ultimately, this means that once the coffee is processed, dried, and roasted, it is more likely to boast a greater number of sweet and complex flavour notes.

Agroforestry also absorbs more carbon dioxide (CO2) than coffee grown under full sun conditions. This is because both the coffee plants and the shade trees sequester CO2 from the atmosphere – helping to reduce the impacts of global warming. 

This means that growing coffee under shade can help farms mitigate their wider environmental impact, offsetting to the point that farms can even become carbon-neutral or carbon-negative, in theory.

For roasters looking to offer more environmentally-friendly products to their consumers, this can be a beneficial, profitable offering.

Furthermore, agroforestry practices can also help to promote and improve traceability and transparency. As agroforestry helps to improve quality as well as boasting environmental improvements, there is more likely to be a differentiated market. 

This means that there’s a higher chance that farmers will be able to receive premium prices for these coffees. As such, if they are harvested and processed separately, the coffees can more easily be traced back to a single producer, farm, or co-op.

However, it should be noted that this isn’t always the case, and that farmers must ensure there is a market for the coffee they are growing – especially if it is more expensive to grow, harvest, and process individually.

To help differentiate and record the coffee grown in agroforestry systems in the BREEDCAFS trials, CIRAD has launched a metadatabase to track performance. The belief is that this database, along with other relevant associated tools, could prove to have use both in the coffee industry and beyond, if leveraged for other tropical crops.

rainforest area

Mitigating the impacts of climate change

One of the biggest drivers of the BREEDCAFS project is that the coffee industry is extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming.

It is believed that arabica coffee originated from a single “super plant” between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. This means that there is little genetic diversity among arabica coffee varieties. 

As such, many varieties today are susceptible to damage as a result of rising global temperatures and a number of diseases (including coffee leaf rust) when grown under full sunlight.

In response, the BREEDCAFS project found that growing hybrid coffee varieties under shade was one of the best ways of adapting coffee production to the effects of climate change.

Benoît Bertrand is the project coordinator at BREEDCAFS.

“We are the first project to breed coffee hybrid varieties with a view to planting them in agroforestry systems,” he tells me.

Over a four-year period, the project assessed various adaptation mechanisms for the new varieties. These allowed researchers to record how the new varieties coped with various stress factors – including higher temperatures, increased levels of drought, reduced shade, higher CO2 levels, and lower levels of nitrogen in soil.

CIRAD initially carried out these assessments in greenhouses in Denmark, France, and Portugal. The varieties were then implemented on demo plots across more than 100 farms in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Vietnam, and Cameroon – with promising results.

unripe and ripe coffee cherries

Planting the new F1 hybrid varieties

The F1 arabica hybrids were developed by CIRAD and ECOM around 20 years ago, and were first tested on coffee farms in Central America. Since then, CIRAD has distributed these seedlings to farms in Africa and Southeast Asia.

These F1 hybrids include Starmaya, CentroAmericano, Evaluna, and Mundo Maya. After assessing the performance of the new varieties, there was evidence indicating that productivity, climate resilience, and quality had all improved.

Across farms in Vietnam, Cameroon, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, the productivity of the new hybrid varieties increased between 10% and 30% when they were grown under shade compared to conventional varieties (Catimor, Catuai, and so on). Moreover, their greater resistance to several diseases meant that pesticide application decreased by between 15% and 20% – helping to reduce overall costs for farmers.

The implications of scaling these F1 hybrids could be highly beneficial for the global coffee industry. CIRAD researchers predict that if these hybrids are distributed efficiently and quickly across the Bean Belt, the areas growing coffee using agroforestry systems could expand between 30% and 40% within the next decade. 

“As a result of the success of these varieties in the four countries covered by the BREEDCAFS project, neighbouring countries across the three continents can also adopt the new F1 hybrids and agroforestry systems on a large-scale,” Benoît explains.

He also notes that the F1 hybrids developed through the BREEDCAFS project originated from a gene pool drawn from wild Ethiopian varieties. The results of the project found that when these varieties were grown at higher altitudes, cupping scores increased significantly.

“The number of F1 arabica hybrids could multiply in the coming years,” he says. “As coffee prices continue to rise, it’s vital that supply chain stakeholders build long-term relationships with producers to guarantee coffee quality and sustainable farming practices.”

measuring coffee blossoms

It’s clear from the evidence of these trials that a combination of climate-resilient hybrids and agroforestry systems can help coffee producers mitigate the impact of climate change, while also helping them boost both yields and quality. 

However, it’s important to recognise that climate change is just one of a number of challenges that the coffee industry faces in the future. With continued price volatility, long-term shipping issues in the wake of Covid-19, and rising fertiliser costs all still prominent across the industry, producers have plenty of challenges to contend with. 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how we can combat the impact of climate change with hybrid coffee varieties.

Photo credits: Benoît Bertrand, Hervé Étienne, BREEDCAFS 

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