Innovation at ICAFE

One of our last coffee tours during this trip was today at ICAFE. ICAFE, or Institudio del Cafe de Costa Rica, is the regulatory agency for the coffee industry in Costa Rica. Their responsibilities include oversight of coffee production, environmental impacts of the industry, promotion of the Costa Rican premium brand, as well as research. The main focus at the Heredia location of ICAFE that we visited today was research in sustainability and efficiency. Some of their main research areas we observed were in relation to water regulation, disease reduction and prevention, soil quality, and coffee quality. Much of the research in these areas included sustainability to make farms and mills more environmentally-friendly.

One of the biggest issues right now in the beginning of the coffee supply chain is coffee rust. ICAFE has labs that are examining coffee rust sent from many different farms in different climate conditions to aid these farmers whose crops are endangered. They study every feature of the disease closely including what conditions it spreads quickest in, how long before the plant is visibly infected, and more. With this information, the ICAFE labs are cultivating a fungus that kills the coffee rust, but does not harm the coffee plant itself or the environment like chemicals would. They are distributing this innovative solution to the farmers who are asking for the agency’s aid. These labs are also developing disease resistant plants, which will be tested over 30 years to ensure their productivity. Both of these tactics show great promise for improving the issues with bad harvests in Costa Rica.

Another big issue ICAFE is researching is the environmental impacts of coffee processors. One impact is the combustion processes used to dry coffee beans. ICAFE has experimented with burning the leftover biomass of the coffee cherry to fuel their ovens, which reduces waste production. Another environmental issue in processing plants is waste water, otherwise known as greywater. ICAFE is researching and setting standards to eliminate any waste water entirely from these plants. One innovative new method involves running the waste water through a grass that naturally filters out pollutants and returns clean water to the soil.

While these initiatives are promising for the planet, large coffee companies may find these ideas economically troubling. For example, a processor must be certified for zero waste water, which requires the company to make the changes then pay for ICAFE to test samples and certify them. This can be a costly process to a large company, which produces tons of waste water. The company must create a large department just for waste water processing that they receive no monetary benefit from. However, in most cases, seeking help from ICAFE benefits any coffee company due to the development of these new innovative solutions to the industry’s issues like poor harvests.

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