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  • ECM - UK

Coffee, a guardian of ecosystems and biodiversity in Mexico

The quality of mexican coffee is in the cup, but also very much in its SOILS. 

Read on to learn about about agroforestry systems in Mexico and how beneficial they are in times of climate change.

The laws are changing

Nowadays, forest and shade-grown coffee are valuable treasures. They are the best defence against climate change and are becoming an advantage in modern markets, as some coffee-importing countries are formulating policies to prohibit and regulate the entry of products that contribute to deforestation and environmental degradation.

For example, the European Union, the world’s largest importer of coffee, has already begun to take action. In summer 2023, the new EU Deforestation Regulation came into effect, with the aim of stopping the import of commodities that have caused deforestation in countries of origin. This regulation applies to seven products, including coffee, soybeans, palm oil, cocoa, rubber, livestock, and wood. Supply chains actors will have to submit their due diligence statement to prove that their imported commodities did not contribute to deforestation.

The edge of Mexico on forest grown coffees

Unlike many producing countries that accelerated their coffee production at the expense of forests and destroyed virgin landscapes to convert them into monocultures plantations, the vast majority of Mexican coffee farmers have kept growing coffee in native agroforestry systems that allow coffee trees to coexist in harmony with other plants. This has hugely contributed to the conservation of soils and biodiveristy, and promoted food sovereignty in the communities.

Green desert in South America

Forest grown coffee in México

Coffee as a synonym of environmental and cultural conservation in Mexico

If you visit a Mexican coffee farm, you are likely to feel like you are in a jungle or thick forest, where coffee often grows next to citrus, tree tomato, passion fruits, berries, banana, sugarcane, corn, beans, squash etc. In Mexico, coffee is shade to cover crops and small plants, and is shaded by 2 or 3 levels of shade trees. 

Mexican farms are unique in terms of biodiveristy thanks to the fact that mostly indigenous communities own and work the coffee lands. Their connection to Mother Nature means they care very much for the land and the ecosystem which they know provides their food and wellbeing, as well as hosts their gods. 

The study ‘Biodiversity Conservation in Traditional Coffee Systems of Mexico’, from 1999, revealed that between 60% and 70% of the coffee-growing areas in Mexico were under traditional management. 

What are the different coffee production systems?

Traditional systems:

Rustic: Coffee is grown under the shade and canopy of the original forest trees. Soils are naturally rich and healthy, full of their natural microbiology.

Traditional Polyculture: Coffee is grown under the original forest, with other types of fruit or wood crops. This system mimics natural ecosystems while optimizing production. Soils are rich and healthy.

Modern systems:

Shaded Monoculture: Coffee is planted with one or few shade trees, usually of the leguminous species to capture nitrogen. Biodiversity in the soil is limited and artificial inputs are often required.

Full-sun Monoculture: Intensification system, without shade, which requires artificial inputs to feed depleted soils.

Benefits of traditional production systems

The benefits of agroforestry systems are countless. 

CUP QUALITY: Trees block light from entering the plantations, which slows photosynthesis and coffee cherry growth. This slow ripening is often associated with a denser bean and higher quality coffee, compared to that grown in full-sun environments.

SOIL HEALTH: Greater plant diversity provides a wider array of nutrients to the soils, reducing the need for artificial fertilizer inputs. Cover crops and shade protect top soils and microorganisms thrive, fulfilling their function of making nutrients available to roots, and generating healthy growth and regeneration of plants.

RESILIENCE: Biodiversity provides natural resilience to ecosystems against natural disasters and extreme weather events. For example, groundcover allows for water retention and will be more resistant against draught. Economically a diverse source of income will prove an efficient shield against a drop in production of one of the crops.

FAUNA PROTECTION: Diversity of trees and humus provide habitat for animals, birds, insects and attract pollinators. This fauna diversity allows for natural pest control, reducing the need for pesticides, fungicides or herbicides.

CO2 CAPTURE: Trees are natural carbon capture and storage units. Many studies show the positive correlation between biodiversity and carbon storage, so much so that a species-rich system stores 2 to 3 times more carbon than a monocrop system. And the CO2 footprint of monoculture is higher when you add the deforestation caused to implement this system.

ENVIRONMENTAL SERVICES: forests and farms produce consumables, but also many valuable services to the people and the planet: this includes beautiful landscapes, peaceful areas for living, resting or exercising, clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, pollination, etc.

The pitfall is in the productivity

Traditional production systems are a great shield against global warming and provide healthy food and spaces. However, they also come with a series of challenges associated with profitability and crop yields.

Crops exposed to the sun tend to have higher yields than those that receive shade, which means that the farmer who chooses to preserve its ecosystem and biodiversity is likely to earn less from coffee than the farmer who opts for monoculture. 

Are we ready to put a price value on the many environmental and social services that traditional production systems bring? Cup quality is important and that's why we all love coffee, but let's go beyond it and look at the other added value of coffee.

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