Agroforestry is one of a number of agricultural techniques used to reduce the environmental impact of coffee growing by boosting natural carbon sequestration and local biodiversity. This technique works by interspersing coffee trees among other trees that may or may not have commercial value.
Coffee has historically been a bush that grew under larger trees and is already planted in between other cash crops around much of the world’s coffee growing regions1. It is estimated that agroforestry is used for different agricultural applications in over one billion hectares in developing countries – including many coffee producing countries such as Vietnam, Cameroon, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua2. Many wild coffee species also continue to grow in forest settings around the world.
When done effectively, agroforestry can provide shade, regulate temperature, improve soil health3 (particularly when using nitrogen fixing trees), regulate water cycles, and support greater resilience to climate change. It is important to note however that agroforestry is not a panacea for coffee production and will not work in every environment.
Agroforestry is a technique that must be applied with care. Consideration should be given to existing exposure to the sun and elements4, the use of native trees5,6, necessary pruning and ongoing maintenance, and the impact trees could have on bird and insect populations7,8,9. For example, poor selection of suitable trees can actually lead to competition with coffee plants for water. On the other end of the spectrum, selecting the right trees for an agroforestry system can provide a habitat for birds, which can eat the insects (some of which may damage coffee crops) – acting as a natural insecticide10.
Agroforestry’s benefits extend beyond purely economic factors. By protecting or restoring the local landscape and animals, coffee farmers can have a positive impact on the environment - these wider benefits are often referred to as ‘ecosystem services’11. However, agroforestry also has the potential to provide additional income to farmers, through using trees that have added value because of their fruit, leaves, or the actual timber itself. This must be done in a way that considers and balances any potential losses from reduced coffee yield.
Planting trees increases the average carbon stock and the ability to sequester carbon within a coffee ecosystem. As with most elements of agroforestry, this should also be done with careful consideration. For example, research indicates that Arabica coffee has greater potential to sequester carbon when grown together with fruit trees (such as avocados, jackfruit, or mangos), whereas Robusta performs better with non-fruit trees12. This may be because Robusta tends to be a heavier coffee crop with a larger mass and is also typically more resilient to the elements, therefore requiring less shade cover or complex intercropping.
The Global Coffee Platform (GCP) Coffee Sustainability Reference Code has laid out recommended practices for coffee farming. A key practice in the code ensures that effective climate change adaptation measures are properly planned and delivered13. While agroforestry is not a new technique, further consideration is needed to accurately measure and assess how its use aids farmers’ resilience to climate change14, longer-term carbon capture15, and how it supports the wider landscape and biodiversity around farms.
Further evidence on the levers behind agroforestry’s effectiveness, including its potential as a cost-effective and less resource-intensive technique, will also help in equipping more farmers with the right tools to expand its use. ISIC remains committed to furthering scientific study which widens and strengthens this evidence base.
The carbon footprint of coffee refers to the sum of greenhouse gas emissions and removals through its entire lifecycle and their contribution to climate change − from the coffee farm all the way to consumption and end-of-life.
The term ‘agrochemical’ refers to all chemical products used in agricultural production. This includes plant protection products designed to prevent, eliminate, or control pests, as well as mineral fertilizers intended to enhance crop growth and productivity.
Coffee itself is an incredibly diverse crop, being grown in varied landscapes around the world. It is increasingly important to understand the potential impact and effects of its activities on ecosystems, as well as how best to mitigate them.