The secret is in the soil: CABI and Nespresso

Image of a coffee plantation landscape and a close up of a coffee borer beetle

This article originally appears on The Positive Cup, by Nespresso. See the original here: 

Paulo Barone, Nespresso, and Steve Edgington, CABI, discuss the challenges and opportunities for increasing the use of biological methods in coffee farming.

Steve Edgington, Team Leader – Biopesticides

Steve heads the Biopesticides Team at CABI looking at how microorganisms from the soil can be used to protect plants from insect and disease attack. His background is crop science, with a PhD in nematology.

Paulo Barone, Head of Coffee Sustainability & Origin Development

Paulo leads Coffee Sustainability at Nespresso and the development of sourcing origins, through the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality™ Program. His is a food engineer, with a Masters in entrepreneurship.

Can you tell us about CABI?

STEVE: CABI is an international not-for-profit with around 500 people based all over the world. That’s field sites, offices, laboratories – with those staff all focused on providing science and information that can improve people’s lives. Agriculture, and taking care of the environment, are very much at the heart of things. I’ve been part of the team since 2000 but CABI has been around for over 100 years.

Can you tell us specifically about some of the work CABI does?

STEVE: We look at better ways to get information to people at the ‘farm gate’ with a huge amount of work done in the field with farmers and advisors. But we also do a lot of lab science – developing ideas and finding solutions. In my team specifically, we look at how microorganisms from the soil can be used instead of chemical pesticides to address crop problems. This is both fundamental science – how will microorganisms grow in certain conditions or ‘find’ and infect a pest, and applied science –  how can a farmer apply the microorganism to hit its target. And a critical component of all this is giving farmers the information and knowledge needed to shift to these more sustainable methods.

And what about the borer beetle, what is the issue?

STEVE: Anyone involved in coffee knows the borer is a problem, it’s a big challenge to control. Once inside the berry, it feeds, reproduces, then either destroys the berry or reduces its quality so that whole batches get rejected. It really does destroy livelihoods. And one of the big challenges is that it spends so much time inside the berry that any pesticide, including biologicals, can’t hit it unless the time’s right. 

That’s why we’re looking at satellite and field-data in Colombia to give farmers an accurate forecast as to when the borer will actually be migrating from the berry – the prime time to hit it with a control. And part of all this work is supporting farmers, particularly female farmers, in better understanding how naturally occurring soil microorganisms, in particular fungi, can be used as controls and how to prepare, apply and store them. Basically, how to effectively control the borer in an environmentally safe, responsible way.

Reseracher knelt on the floor of a coffee plantation with

What are biological pesticides and how do they differ from chemical pesticides?

PAULO: Biological pesticides are natural substances from plants, or microorganisms, or even derived directly from the pheromones emitted from insects. They’re completely safe: to humans, to bees to fish. And crucially, they kill the pest. 

STEVE: Back in the lab we look at specificity – making sure this strain of the microorganism kills insect A but not insect B; and maybe finding an even better strain. And the biological products you find in Colombia and elsewhere have gone through these tests, they’re regulated and assessed, not just for pest-kill but safety as well. When you have issues of poisoning with chemical pesticides, soil degradation, resistance and so on and we’ve got this portfolio of safe, effective biological alternatives, we need to put them into action. If we take the case of the coffee borer beetle in Colombia, it’s the microorganisms found from local soils, tested, registered then applied correctly, that can make a real difference. 

Colombian Coffee Landscape

Surely it’s a ‘no brainer’ for farmers to move to biological crop management?

PAULO: Of course, in an ideal world, but you could say the same about consumers just buying organic foods, but we know this isn’t the case. The environmental argument is strong but for the farmer it’s not so black and white. Biological pesticides are generally more expensive. And many of the benefits – the ecosystem services they deliver – are realised in the longer term. And these longer-term benefits are less quantifiable when a farmer is comparing on-shelf prices and shorter-term yields.

STEVE: It’s very much as Paulo says. Agriculture has had the luxury for many years of cheap, ‘effective’ pesticides so this shift to paying more is going to be a tricky one. But it’s part of our job to work with farmers and advisors to show how the longer-term benefits of using biologicals will be so valuable. Plus, scientists around the world are looking at ways to improve efficiencies, production costs and speed of kill for the biologicals…so on the shelf, we’ll start seeing cheaper products. But that’s just one step, albeit a big one. We’re also tackling the knowledge gaps that exist globally for biologicals amongst the farming community. Because clearly, better information leads to better decisions. 

PAULO: And this is where the CABI BioProtection Portal can be a real game changer.


What is the CABI BioProtection Portal? 

STEVE: It is ultimately designed to fill this knowledge gap. Globally, there’s far greater awareness of our surroundings and the need to treat our soils and our ecosystems with more respect and the CABI BioProtection Portal we’ve developed, will help make this easier. It’s a web platform where you can effectively ask, “I’m in this country and this bug is eating this particular crop, what can I apply that’s safe but effective?” It’s completely free, so farmers, agronomists, you, me, professionals, even amateur gardeners, can access it. It shows what biological products are permitted as controls in which country, how they work, what they control, and how they’re applied. It’s easily accessible, practical information that enables people to make better decisions.

Nespresso are a key sponsor of the portal, how does this collaboration work?

PAULO: First and foremost, we think it’s a brilliant initiative – that’s why we were so keen to come on board as a sponsor. This collaboration is aimed at enriching the information that will be available and specifically in relation to sustainable coffee farming – for example detailed instructions on biological alternatives, what they are, and very importantly, how to apply them. Information that, in many countries, is not so easy to access.


And what are the plans for this moving forward?

STEVE: For the portal, we’re continuing to work to add new information relevant to more countries, with about one new country added each month, as well as making new languages available too. And with our portal partners and sponsors like Nespresso, we’re adding as much relevant information as we can alongside the biological products that can help their suppliers, their farmers and so on. On top of this there will be increasing publicity, emphasising this need to change to biologicals. 

The portal already has information for some of the key coffee producing countries, it’s live in Colombia, Brazil, Kenya, India and Uganda, in primary local languages as well as English, with details on some 400 plus biological products that are permitted on coffee for a range of pests and diseases. In 2022, we’ll be adding more countries – Indonesia, Mexico, Costa Rica will be live – and we’re hopeful to get Vietnam live as well. In addition, we’re working with Paulo and his team to create a coffee area on the portal where we can add information on farming practices that will complement and indeed enable the successful adoption of biologicals. Yes, it’s a good start to say “these biological products are permitted” but we’ll be backing it up with that essential knowledge that will make these products central to successful, safe pest and disease management in coffee. 

PAULO: We’re also working with Steve and his teams at CABI so that we can empower our entire team of over 400 agronomists to use the CABI BioProtection Portal. We want to enable them to work on the ground with AAA farmers to encourage biological take-up on AAA farms around the world. That’s just one step, we also want to establish pilots that will allow us to accurately assess the impacts over time of farms that are making this transition to biological methods. 

It’s all part of our goal to shift towards regenerative agriculture that will benefit farmers and the land that they treasure.