Since I haven’t done an interview in awhile, I thought you would enjoy a whopper of a topic with Dr. Alvaro Gaitan, Head of Plant Pathology, National Coffee Research Center (Cenicafe), Colombia. This month he’ll cover the impact of climate on coffee in Colombia and the 25th International Conference of Coffee Science.
DD- What are the main challenges that the coffee industry has faced in Colombia?
Dr. AG – The main challenge is to reduce the vulnerability in the productivity of the coffee farmers beyond climate variations, in particular those changes that involve an increase in the precipitation above the average, such as the consecutive La Niña events that occurred between 2008 and 2011. Excessive cloudiness and water in soils have deep consequences in the assimilation and production of nutrients, and also send confusing signals for the plant to flourish at the right time, therefore causing significant yield reductions, that reached almost 25% during those years.
Similarly, high humidity and scarce sunshine created favorable conditions for the proliferation of fungal diseases, among them the Coffee Leaf Rust, one of the most limiting problems around the world. The reduction of sunny days also affect the drying process of coffee beans during the post-harvest, a condition can alter the cup quality.
DD – What strategies has the FNC and Cenicafe developed to combat climate change and prepare for climate variability?
Dr. AG – First, there is an institutional effort to mitigate the effects that weather conditions have on coffee plantations, formulated as the “Climate-smart coffee cultivation”. In coordination with the government of Colombia, the team of 1500 extensionists and Cenicafé, a plan was put into action by the FNC to reach the farmers with an integral solution, with fungicides to combat the Coffee Leaf Rust, soft credits to renovate their plantations with resistant varieties, certificated seeds of those varieties and the technical assistance to successfully apply the solutions provided.
Second, a nationwide monitoring system was implemented to keep a close look at production and disease levels in the whole country, with over 5,000 plots statistically selected and evaluated 4 times a year. With this system, early alerts of potentially new problems can be generated for specific regions.
In the medium term, the FNC is increasing its capacity to detect weather changes, updating and extending the weather station network, obtaining real time pictures of the climate conditions in the coffee growing area, but also improving its capacity to use this information in an agronomical sense, applying mathematical models adjusted for coffee growing conditions, and providing the growers with recommendations for their particular plots.
In the long term, Cenicafé is working on generating technologies for adaptation to climate change, breeding the varieties of the future that should have resistance to diseases and plagues, better adaptations to changing environmental conditions, improved assimilation of nutrients, and even better cup attributes that the current varieties. These varieties must be used with other technologies such as agroforestry, preservation of the rich biodiversity present in coffee plantations, and efficient use of water and human resources in order to maintain sustainable the production of coffee for the future.
DD – What has the FNC done to help producers to adapt to the shifting weather patterns that affect coffee production?
Dr. AG – Besides the actions explained above, it is very critical to provide opportune and accurate information to the growers and the whole production chain, in order to support the decision making process that must be taken at local, regional and national levels.
DD- How does the FNC transfer knowledge to small coffee growers so they can implement these strategies in their farms?
Dr. AG – The main way of transferring is through the Extension Service, which is a team of 1,500 trained professionals in agronomy that take the information from Cenicafé and deliver it to the farmers y a regional way. Cenicafé also provides direct support to the coffee growers using its web platforms where information can be downloaded or direct questions to the specialists can be made.
DD -What advise can the FNC offer to other producing countries that are being currently affected with this challenge?
Dr. AG – Learning from our own experience in a country with many different environmental variations due to latitude, altitude and cultivation practices, it is important to understand the unique features from every coffee cultivation area, in terms of weather, soils, agronomical practices, diseases and pests, the institutional or government resources available and the very nature of the coffee business that coffee producers have interest in. Organic producers, certified producers, specialty coffee producers, and others, they all have particular needs. There is not a single recipe that fits all cases. Some of Colombia´s actions can be followed, but at the end the solution has to come from the inside.
DD- Why did ASIC select Colombia to host this event?
Dr. AG – Colombia is showing a strong leadership in many scientific developments in coffee, and has been able to apply those achievements into options to be used by the coffee growers. It also is the example of a strong democratic institution made up of small producers that for over 75 years have been supporting research, even in times when international prices have not provided the flexibility in the budgets to invest on scientific developments. This, and the current progressive advances in economical, security and infrastructure in the country were important facts considered by ASIC to select Colombia this year to host its meeting.
Coffee, science and innovation collided at the 25th International Conference on Coffee Science (ASIC 2014). From September 8 – 13, Armenia, Colombia will hosted ASIC, the most prestigious international event focused on science, technology and their impact on sustainability and knowledge of the coffee industry.
This major international event was organized by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) and the Association for Science and Information on Coffee (ASIC) and it attracts major leaders in the coffee industry as well as scientists and specialists from across the globe. This conference provided an opportunity for attendees to share and compare their investigations, contributing to an increase in worldwide awareness and knowledge of coffee.