The harmful role of pesticides and how to minimise their impact

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When we refer to pesticides we need to consider a wide range of substances like herbicides, fungicides and insecticides.Unfortunately, coffee is one of the most sprayed crop in the world.

The majority of the studies say that up to 250 pounds of fertilizers are sprayed per every single acre of non-organic coffee. Roughly 90% of the coffee are non-organic. So basically, we need to use pesticides whenever we want to prevent or eliminate pests like insects, fungal diseases and many others.

But what’s the difference between organic and non-organic coffee? It’s necessary to clarify this topic. USDA or United States Department of Agriculture fixed the organic standard as “a labelling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods. The organic standards describe the specific requirements that must be verified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent before products can be labelled USDA organic. Overall, organic operations must demonstrate that they are protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and using only approved substances.”

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Organic coffee is always seen as healthier

This set the organic standard apart of non-organic ones where synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are allowed. The organic ones rely on natural fertilizers such as compost, leaves from the trees, coffee pulp but even from bio pesticides which derived from natural pesticides such as minerals, fungi, plants or by organisms that make pesticides for their own defence.

Organic coffee, on the other hand, has always seen as healthier and higher in quality instead of synthetic ones.

The reality is that organic coffee can be treated with loads of natural pesticides which they are as harmful as the synthetic ones.

Quality speaking, we can’t just rely on the use of pesticides and fertilizers. I previously wrote about how many steps there are from bean-to-cup that are affecting the quality such as terroir, harvesting, roasting, grinding and so on.

Bio pesticides instead are almost always non-toxic or less toxic than any other pesticides and their effective range is limited to related organisms which means that they are not used in big quantities. Another benefit of bio pesticides is that they don’t contaminate any areas because they decompose quickly without being carried off by wind.

And on top of that, we cannot fail to mention how a coffee plant grows which is what really affects the use and the amount of fertilizers and pesticides on coffee plants: the way in which coffee is cultivated.

Shade grown or sun-grown?

This is the most important topic when it comes to protect the environment and its biodiversity. Usually, as in the majority of the crops, pesticides are mostly used to increase yields. And that’s exactly what happen as well in coffee production.

You may think “cool, let’s do it” but unfortunately pesticides also have some drawbacks. Exposing to pesticides can cause several health effects from a simple eyes and skin irritation to serious effects such as causing cancer, affecting the nervous system, endocrine disruptor, birth defects and fetal death. Regarding the environment, pesticides and fertilizers are a serious problem.

When these substances are sprayed on a cultivation they are also reaching different destinations carried off by wind to different areas, contaminating animals, air, water and soil. Pesticides and fertilizers have a huge impact also on biodiversity, contributing for example on bird migration and deforestation.

So, while sun-grown coffee suggests higher yield and higher profit for a farmer, it affects as well the biodiversity and the quality of the coffee cherries.

Sun-grown coffee implies deforestation to let the coffee plant growing into direct contact with the sunlight. This also increase the coffee plant vulnerability to pests and need chemicals to destroy and controlled them.

In term of quality, sun-grown coffee maximises the crop but also affect the quality of the coffee cherries give them less time to develop both acidity and flavours. Shade-grown coffee instead is truly depending on biodiversity. Planting a variety of trees lead to many benefits such as:

  • prevention of soil erosion: the soil is keep enriched by microbes that delivered many nutrients to the plant;
  • disease warning system: plants are less susceptible to pests and diseases;
  • bird habitats: even though arabica coffee is a self-pollinating plant, many studies have shown that bees help increasing the coffee production; additionally, birds play the role of the predator against coffee pests;
  • little or non-use of chemical: this is a consequence of all the previous benefits.

Conclusion

We can easily say that while shade grown coffee doesn’t guarantee the same yield of non-organic one, farmers can earn more money from selling them as a premium (specialty coffee) and even though this implies more labour cost, farmers can even earn from different crops considering that trees like banana, orange, avocado and many others are still a good value.

Finally, I want to highlight the fact that “organic” and “high quality” don’t indispensably go hand in hand.

And there’s no magic bullet to control pests, but rather the awareness that shade-grown cultivation is the key for the future of the coffee industry in terms of stability and sustainability.

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