Need Innovation? ICAFE Has It

I was completely out of my element throughout this engineering-heavy visit! Today, we visited the Instituto del Café (ICAFE), which is a government funded organization with two main focuses: research and development and promoting coffee nationally and internationally. Costa Rica’s coffee production has decreased in recent history due to climate change, fungus, and plant damage known as rust. Therefore, ICAFE conducts extensive research to combat these foes affecting plantations and provide coffee producers with information to increase quality coffee without fear of poor crops. They study the five major diseases affecting plants, but farms also often send small samples of leaves or soil to ICAFE. After determining the root cause, they typically send a biological treatment back to the farms, such as a fungus to counteract the harmful fungus.

The Instituto del Café also seeks out innovative ways to recycle the farms’ waste and increase sustainability. For instance, they have created a Biomass Oven powered by coffee husks, wood, sugar cane byproducts, and other waste. It produces a strong heating power for the drying process, which is an alternative to the sun drying method. They are also searching for a more efficient way to roast coffee beans without natural resources. Researchers are trying to capture the gas released from high Biomass temperatures and utilize it later on, such as for roasting purposes. Moreover, ICAFE uses an Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) technology to determine the nutrient levels in leaves, soil, and water. This equipment extracts the plasma automatically, which is much more efficient than the method they used prior. For the last 22 years, they used an Atomic Absorption machine which requires an employee to oversee it all day. However, with the new machine, they sample plantations’ water to analyze its toxicity levels and to prove to the government that it is clean enough for runoff. Still, they do not promote any runoff. Instead, the government encourages farmers to spread the excess water on grass, keeping the nutrients at the surface while the water goes into the soil.

Small farmers typically seek help from ICAFE, because they are too small and don’t have the means to research for themselves. Companies must pay a 1.5% export tax to sell coffee outside of Costa Rica, and this money funds ICAFE and its research for the coffee industry. If smaller plantations need assistance with a strain of fungus or rust ruining their crops, they can reach out to ICAFE for help. This is an incredible resource for them. However, larger companies tend to have their own research team to innovate and make processes more efficient. If this is the case, these companies do not need assistance from ICAFE; it most likely holds a negative connotation, because they essentially pay the 1.5% tax for no reason.

The research done at the Instituto del Café is groundbreaking and necessary for Costa Rica’s coffee industry. With declining production and so many families relying on this commodity, I am glad to see a body of researchers seeking innovative ideas to combat some of their issues. I hope they find treatments for all the effects of climate change!

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