Why innovations for sustainable coffee agriculture aren’t being adopted

wind turbines and solar panels in a dumpster
  • Sustainable agricultural innovations aren’t lacking in the coffee sector
  • However, their adoption remains sluggish – 47% of readers believe this is due to a lack of funding
  • There is a gap between researchers and producers, resulting in untailored solutions

INNOVATIONS KEEP emerging as potential game-changers for sustainable coffee farming. These technologies offer the promise of increased efficiency, reduced environmental impact, and improved livelihoods for coffee producers. 

However, despite their significant potential benefits, the adoption of such innovations remains sluggish in the coffee farming sector.

The introduction of cutting-edge tools and methods, including precision agriculture techniques, programmable digital devices, and sustainable farming practices could theoretically be great tools to enhance productivity and sustainability in coffee cultivation.

One case in point is a recent research paper, “Optimizing Harvest Efficiency: Development & assessment of a Pneumatic Air Jet Excitation Nozzle for Delicate Biostructures in Food Processing”, which explored the potential of compressed air equipment and a precision solenoid valve in delicate tasks like harvesting of sensitive crops like coffee. 

The precise vibrations generated by the device could potentially enhance harvesting efficiency while significantly reducing mechanical damage to plants. 

“The idea emerged from the necessity to improve selective harvesting techniques,” says Jan Banout, one of the lead scientists for the pneumatic nozzle study and the Head of the Department of Sustainable Technologies at the Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences, Czech University of Life Sciences in Prague. “This innovation enhances harvest efficiency & opens up new possibilities for the agricultural and biological fields.”

This promising proof of concept offers a new, non-intrusive approach to manipulating and interacting with delicate agricultural structures. However, further research and trials would be required before the technology can be used by producers on the ground for their annual harvests.

Many other innovations also seek to revolutionise traditional harvesting methods, minimise labour-intensive practices, and promote environmentally friendly farming practices within the coffee industry. So why aren’t we seeing more of them in use?

There is a gap between researchers and producers

Despite the allure of sustainable agricultural innovations, coffee producers encounter numerous barriers that impede their adoption and implementation. 47% of Coffee Intelligence readers believe this is because of a lack of funding, while 30% attribute slow uptake to infrastructure challenges.

One of the primary obstacles is the fundamental disconnect between the innovations developed and the realities faced by coffee producers on the ground

Factors like limited access to technology, high upfront costs, and insufficient training and support hinder the widespread adoption of sustainable agricultural practices. A lack of awareness about innovative solutions is also a major hurdle.

“We find out about new machines from the equipment suppliers,” says Rohan Kuriyan, coffee producer at Balanoor Plantations in India. They email us about innovations from time to time. Social media is also very helpful to keep an eye on what’s happening in the producer space, and what other producers around the world are doing.”

The coffee industry suffers from a significant research investment gap that is significantly more pronounced at the producer end. Many innovations that do come about never reach or get picked up by producers. 

The complexity of integrating new technologies into existing farming systems, coupled with the risk-averse nature of many coffee producers, contributes to the slow uptake of innovations in sustainable coffee agriculture. 

The gap between innovation developers and end-users further exacerbates the challenge, as solutions may not always align with the specific needs and contexts of coffee-producing communities – pointing to a major communication gap between researchers and producers.

“We as scientists don’t want to work on topics that won’t find applications in practice,” says Jan. “Scientists and academics are not always ideal marketers, and it would be useful if universities & research organisations could have professionals in the field of marketing and dissemination of scientific results.”

Producers also need to communicate with researchers about their challenges and needs. Support from governmental and non-governmental institutions in this endeavour could make strides, as they often finance research or govern the coffee industry in producing countries.

smart phone on coffee farm

Scaling up innovation at origin and learning from other industries

While multinational corporations and traditional consuming countries often spearhead funding and research initiatives for sustainable agricultural innovations, bridging the gap between innovation development and on-the-ground implementation remains a critical challenge.

By involving coffee producers in the innovation process, tailoring solutions to local contexts, and providing adequate support and resources, the uptake of sustainable agricultural practices can be accelerated, leading to tangible benefits for both farmers and the industry as a whole.

“Research organisations and universities could organise events for the wider public or specifically targeting producers, sharing research results and possible practical applications,” says Jan. “Popularising scientific outputs and publishing some of the research outside the purely scientific journals will make it more accessible to the producers at large.”

Much research takes place in the Global North, in countries that are essentially consumer countries. This means the technology is often disconnected from producers’ realities. Partnerships between research bodies and producer countries are therefore crucial.

“We tried the olive harvester for coffee, but found heavy defoliation of the plant, spikes being removed, and a large amount of spillage on the ground,” says Rohan. “We also tried the Gulliver, which ended up shooting the beans far away like a paintball gun.”

While there is significant room for improvement, some innovations from other sectors have been incredibly successful for coffee producers and have made an impact.

“One of the areas where we find technology has been successfully adopted is in the effluent water treatment plants,” says Rohan. “The use of sewage treatment by filtering through rocks and then treating the water with bioagents to reduce the BOD, COD, pH, and EC has helped us a lot.”

“We adopted high-volume sprayers to quickly finish spraying but with regards to harvesting, we have yet to see a good machine tailored to our areas.”

Investing in capacity-building, knowledge transfer, and research partnerships with coffee-producing countries can help cultivate a culture of innovation and sustainability within the industry. 

By empowering coffee producers to embrace and adapt innovations that align with their needs and realities, the coffee sector could more effectively achieve resilient, efficient, and sustainable coffee growing systems worldwide.

Coffee Intelligence

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