Sustainable coffee production is a challenge that many farmers are facing. To some extent, many have moved their farms because of climate change pressures. Others are dealing with this scary possibility but might be on time to make appropriate changes.
But climate isn’t the only threat. Water pollution, soil impoverishment, and pests are menacing coffee farmers. Additionally, market volatility hasn’t helped farmers to invest in more advanced tools and technologies.
In this context, coffee producers are looking for affordable alternatives that help them obtain a steady income year after year. One of such solutions might be permaculture, which has a good set of principles and some proven success. However, it isn’t as straightforward as we might think.
Keep reading to find out more about permaculture, its potential for coffee, and its limitations.
What is permaculture?
Simply put, permaculture is a different way of agriculture that aims to be sustainable and promote self-sufficient homes by imitating nature.
In more detail, we can say that it’s “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems.”
Permaculture uses an integrative approach, considering a set of ethical guidelines and design principles. This approach differs from prevalent business practices in agriculture, which are more inclined towards cost-efficiency and scalability.
Overall, farmers who practice permaculture use forests as their point of reference. In doing so, they reduce water use, control plagues, develop richer soils, and leave a smaller ecological footprint.
Permaculture ethics and design principles
Growing different products in the same space is an essential part of permaculture. Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash
Permaculture isn’t a fad. The system has decades of practice already in use and has attracted many advocates around the world. It has become increasingly attractive due to climate change and sustainability challenges we have been enduring more intensely in the past few decades.
The ethical grounds of permaculture are:
- Earth care: including all forms of life, avoiding harming or killing other plants or animals.
- Fair share: taking no more than what we need.
- People care: aiming for people’s sustenance.
Around these three essential claims, an authoritative author in the field, David Holmgren, articulated twelve design principles:
- Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
- Catch and store energy
- Creatively use and respond to change
- Design from patterns to details
- Integrate rather than segregate
- Observe and interact
- Obtain a yield
- Produce no waste
- Use and value diversity
- Use and value renewable resources and services
- Use edges and value the marginal
- Use small and slow solutions.
Considering the current situation and challenges for coffee production, it sounds like a great idea to implement permaculture in the coffee industry. However, permaculture training isn’t available as quickly as conventional agricultural practices. Additionally, many business people are afraid of the economic viability and scalability of permaculture practices.
The importance of permaculture for coffee
The coffee industry is looking to be more sustainable from end to end. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
In 2018, a group of researchers from UNSW in Sydney published a review assessing the performance of alternative farm designs, including permaculture.
According to the study, permaculture increases biodiversity, which is crucial for sustainability. Additionally, according to other studies, it has proven benefits on collective health and well-being, crop resilience to environmental changes, and lower input costs. The latter says that high labor input, poor knowledge of permaculture techniques, pests, and diseases are significant challenges for broader implementation.
In a more recent publication, Michael Pollan explains the adaptive capabilities of the coffee tree and the role of humans in caring for and promoting the spread and adaptation of the plant to many different conditions.
However, we have played a significant role in pollution, soil impoverishment, and climate change, which is putting coffee at risk too. Coffee drinkers around the world are becoming increasingly aware of the situation. For this reason, organic coffee and other sustainability-related certifications have been growing in popularity in recent years.
Considering that coffee is highly industrialized and mechanized, particularly in major producers like Brazil and Vietnam, it’s easy to understand that implementing permaculture on scale requires significant changes that would take several years to execute and monitor. Still, several producers have been innovating and testing new techniques, aiming for more sustainable production systems. We could find a few documented examples of these cases.
In Kenya, Caleb Omolo has successfully practiced permaculture to grow coffee and other products like bananas, climbing beans, and avocados. Following permaculture principles, Mr. Omolo has obtained good results based on water efficiency, shade-growing, and pest control through biodiversity.
According to PDG, Malian Lahey has practiced permaculture along with many other advanced techniques to produce high-quality coffee sustainably in Hawaii.
Permaculture isn’t a panacea for the coffee industry, or any food industry, for that matter. Some people would discard it after looking at its limitations, but I wouldn’t leave it out of the picture so quickly.
On the contrary, implementing permaculture combined with advanced technology can lead to better results than conventional agriculture. Bear in mind that current agricultural practices are already in question, particularly the abuse of pesticides and genetic modification of living organisms for human consumption.
In this regard, permaculture looks like a promising venue for experimentation and advancement that might not be as cost-effective as other approaches. Still, it’s certainly safer and more sustainable than most prevalent practices.
Credits: Featured image by Dang Cong on Unsplash