Buena Vista Roastery

Coffee and the Mountains

Systems Thinking in Coffee and the Climate Change

I recently read a blurb about a University of Michigan study that focuses on how shade grown coffee will help alleviate stress of weather extremes potentially resulting from the changing climate. The results of the study seem rather common sensical once you understand basics of systems thinking. I am not one to question to judgment of funding such a project, because it plays an important role in academia and, as a result, in influencing policy. I will take the opportunity, however, to spout a bit about systems thinking and coffee.

First, what is shade grown coffee? Basically, a coffee plantation is considered shade grown when there exist multiple layers of canopy with the coffee trees. That is, growing coffee as part of the lower canopy, with fruit trees, leguminous trees, etc shading the coffee. There are bird niches in every canopy, greater insect life, animal activity, cycling of nutrients, richer humus, healthier soils, etc. A plantation can go through a certification process to be “Shade Grown”. Most organic coffee production incorporates shade. Shade promotes biodiversity. Biodiversity promotes health.

Within Systems Thinking, there are understood to be three basic systems, hard, soft and natural systems. The hard systems are the ones that humans create and whose outcome is predictable. Their success is determined by the interplay of the parts, and if you remove any of those parts the system will malfunction and stop. Examples include a machine – a cell phone, ipod, this computer. A soft system is also created by humans, but you cannot predict what will happen when the variables are put together or if you remove one of the parts. Examples include an organization, family, business, etc. The third, natural systems, is not made by humans and also have unpredictable relationships. A biodiverse coffee plantation, I argue, is a natural system, even though it is heavily manipulated by humans. I suppose one could argue that a monoculture of coffee may not be natural. In this case, the principles of soft and natural systems are fundamentally the same. The point is, we are dealing with many parts that work together and we cannot predict how they will relate to each other. We cannot predict what will happen when one part is removed. If you reduce the parts intentionally by changing management, such as by reducing canopy, you have less opportunity for self-correction in the plantation. The more biodiverse, the easier it is for the plantation to ‘take care of itself’ and the fewer inputs required.

Common sense reigns. If we manage for maximum production and efficiency in the short term, we would reduce the things that might interfere with harvest – such as pesky tree trunks. We would also heavily mine the soil by producing more fruit (coffee) and replacing the mined minerals with mechanically applied fertilizers. We would also allow for more sunlight to naturally combat fungus that attacks coffee fruit and leaves. By doing so, we acknowledge that we are removing more and more parts to the system – the simpler, the more efficient to work with. This is modern, conventional agriculture, and the baby of the Green Revolution. Counter to hard system functionality, the fewer the parts, the harder it is to self-control. A weather event, such as a ‘drought’ or ‘flood’ comes in and the system has a hard time coping and takes much longer to react and recover, losing productivity and income in the meantime.

Contrarily, a biodiverse plantation can withstand weather events because the abundant variables allow for flexibility in how a plantation can self-regulate. Certainly, human input is essential to maintain a productive coffee plantation that continually removes minerals and carbon in the form of a coffee cherry. Humans also have to discourage an unwanted forest from growing, which undoubtedly would without proper care.

Presumably, researchers at U of M studied the effects of shade grown coffee on the soil, temperature, moisture content, and general micro-climate of a coffee plantation along with the associated plant health. These results would have been compared to plantations that were not shade grown. As a conclusion of the study, we now know emphatically that a canopy is good and would position a coffee farmer better to deal with climate change than if he or she had a monoculture plantation. Now, we as an industry have the science to back up the logic.

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