Are Birds Best Hope for Pest-Ridden Coffee Crops?

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic Magazine
August 26, 2008

Chances are you've never heard of Hypothenemus hampei. But this tiny insect is the world's biggest threat to something many of us swear we can't live without: our morning cup of coffee. (See photos.)

The bug, commonly known as the coffee berry borer, strikes almost everywhere coffee grows. It can destroy up to 70 percent of a crop, posing a significant threat to this $70-billion-a-year industry.

Millions of dollars have funded research to eradicate the coffee berry borer, and for decades, coffee farmers the world over have been battling the pest using every weapon they can muster, from traps to insecticide and even other insects—all with limited success.

But a simple solution may already exist in their own backyards: birds.

"By eating the pests that damage coffee crops, birds can provide a valuable service to coffee farmers," said ecologist Matthew Johnson. He's measured birds' protective effects on coffee plants in Jamaica—and concluded that farmers can reap more protection simply by providing the birds a friendlier environment.

Jamaica's mountain regions produce some of the world's best and most expensive varieties of gourmet coffee.

With funding from National Geographic, Johnson, an associate wildlife professor at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, and his research partner, Jherime Kellermann, showed the extent to which birds protect coffee crops.

The birds target and gobble up insects during the brief window of time before the bugs start doing damage. When foraging birds were free to visit coffee plants, there was up to 14 percent less borer infestation than in plants that were caged off from the birds.

The researchers also found that berry damage was cut nearly in half, providing a significant boost in coffee yields and farm income.

"This is one of those win-win-win situations—something that is good for the farmer, good for the birds, and good for the environment," Johnson said.

A Hot Commodity With a Costly Problem

Coffee is produced in 70 countries, and the industry employs some 20 million farming families around the globe. It's the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil.

Continued on Next Page >>




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