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The secret in the soil: CABI and Nespresso

Published 17/12/2021

Theme: Portal members

Credit: Rodrigo Flores on Unsplash

This article originally appears on The Positive Cup, by Nespresso.

Paulo Barone (Nespresso) and Steve Edgington (CABI) discuss challenges and opportunities in boosting biological methods in coffee farming.

Steve Edgington, Team Leader – Biopesticides

Steve at CABI leads the Biopesticides Team, exploring soil microorganisms for plant protection against insects and diseases. 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?

STEVECABI 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 that 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 involves fundamental science, exploring how microorganisms grow and ‘find’ or infect pests under specific conditions. It also encompasses applied science, addressing how a farmer can effectively apply the microorganism to target and control pests. Critical to this is providing farmers with the information and knowledge for a shift to 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, and either destroys the berry or diminishes its quality, leading to the rejection of entire batches. 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. 

This is the reason we are analyzing satellite and field data in Colombia. The aim is to provide farmers with an accurate forecast of the borer’s migration from the berry. This information helps determine the prime time to implement effective control measures.. Supporting farmers, especially women, involves helping them understand the use of naturally occurring soil microorganisms, particularly fungi, for control. This includes guidance on preparation, application, and storage.. Basically, how to effectively control the borer in an environmentally safe, responsible way.

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. In the case of the coffee borer beetle in Colombia, locally sourced microorganisms, when tested, registered, and applied correctly, make a real difference.

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. In the longer term, people experience many benefits, including the ecosystem services they provide. 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, accustomed to affordable pesticides, faces challenges in transitioning to pricier but effective alternatives. 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 growing awareness of the need to treat our soils and ecosystems with more respect. The CABI BioProtection Portal facilitates this effort, making it 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 permitted biological controls, their functions, targets, and application methods in each country. 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 aims to enrich available information, particularly concerning sustainable coffee farming. It includes detailed instructions on biological alternatives, explaining what they are and, 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, emphasizing this need to change to biologicals. 

The portal contains information for key coffee-producing countries. It is live in Colombia, Brazil, Kenya, India, and Uganda, featuring primary local languages and English. The platform provides details on over 400 permitted biological products for various pests and diseases in coffee. 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. Starting by stating “these biological products are permitted” is a good beginning. We’ll support it with essential knowledge, making these products central to successful, safe coffee pest and disease management.

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 aim to establish pilots to accurately assess the long-term impacts of farms transitioning 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.

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