The role of biodiversity in agroforestry and other types of smallholder farming
Biological diversity in agriculture
Agricultural biodiversity or agrobiodiversity provides alternatives to conventional agricultural crops. It can harness diverse biological resources to make food production more sustainable.
Agrobiodiversity includes a wide variety of species and genetic resources as well as techniques farmers can use to produce and manage crops. It can enhance the use of marginal lands to provide a minimum level of food production, even in the harshest living conditions.
Dimensions of food security
We can define food security as access to food for everyone at all times that is:
This places the emphasis on access to healthy food, rather than food production.
The lack of social and economic access to adequate calories and nutrition is affected by three main ‘food entitlement sources’; owning the means of production, the ability to purchase or provide in-kind exchange and the transfer of resources between households. In addition, food production needs to be stable over time to provide food security.
The food system concept
In changing climatic conditions achieving food security without environmental damage is essential. A food system concept includes production, processing, packaging, distribution, selling and consuming food.
Smallholder farming households
Focusing on smallholder farming households helps us to see the gap between global understanding and the local potential for food and nutrition security. Local agrobiodiversity can contribute to food security and economic improvement for smallholder farming households. Where people can see benefits to their nutrition and income, they are more likely maintain and protect their environment and resources.
At the household level the food system approach has three main components; food availability, access and use. Availability of sufficient calories, proteins and micronutrients is provided by local production and distribution channels and the ability to make purchases or to exchange labour. An indicator of accessibility is affordability, illustrating how well local markets and exchange mechanisms work. Food use is illustrated through patterns of consumption and food choices, alongside health services, sanitation and childcare.
Nourishment and nutrition
Processed calorie-rich foods at affordable prices help to meet food energy needs. However, for good health, agrobiodiversity in food systems is required to provide a wide and varied range of nutrient-rich foods and dietary components.
Smallholder farmers can develop products that meet the demands of local food cultures and which also offer nutritional and cultural benefits to rural and urban consumers. There is a complex relationship between the ‘food system activities’ and ‘food security outcomes’ which require multiple coordinated solutions.
A multifactor approach
Support - Small holder farmers can support the wider conservation of agrobiodiversity and plant genetic resources. To do this successfully they need regular advice and information, tailored to their needs. However, rural development workers are often under-funded and under-resourced, leading to local exclusion. Private funding, community training and input from the public sector and non-governmental organisations can move the agenda forward.
Local dialogue - discussions on food and nutrition security at the local level can help to integrate smallholder farmers into the food system and allow them to make better-informed choices. Community health workers can deliver successful nutrition education programmes to influence food selection and cooking. Providing information to wider social networks is also helping to achieve sustainable bahavioural change. Overall, learning to speak a ‘common language’ is necessary for long-term success.
Long-term commitment – smallholder farmers need the long-term help of institutions to bring new products to market. Currently efforts are often badly targeted, poorly implemented and rarely enforced. Even when crops are successful, smallholders are discouraged from accessing formal markets due to a range of taxes and fees.
Government involvement – protective policies from government could improve transparency and capacity to bring about change. Integrating smallholder farmers into value chains for non-traditional fruit and vegetable crops could improve diversity and nutrition.
Stimulating demand – whilst some foods with high nutritional value might not be desirable locally, they could be attractive to urban markets. Local education about nutrition and sales processes will encourage interest from other stakeholders that will help to integrate smallholders’ niche products into the market.
Risk management – there are examples of niche products becoming so popular that markets become flooded, resulting in falling prices and serious financial losses for smallholder farmers. Compensation mechanisms are needed to protect farmers from these inevitable downturns, including market price guarantees and insurance schemes. Access to centralised market information could also reduce exploitation by wholesalers.
Sustainable use of the most readily available resource for smallholder farmers, local agrobiodiversity, can have positive benefits. It can enhance the use of agricultural land and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Based on ‘The role of biodiversity in agroforestry and other types of smallholder farming’ by Mary Ng’endo, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Kenya; and Shonil A. Bhagwat, The Open University, UK
Flavour as the common thread for coffee quality along the value chain
Physical characteristics of the bean or cherry are not good indicators of flavour in the cup, so how is this important choice to be made?
Cupping, the process of grading coffee quality based on a tasting protocol, is often the basis of quality decisions. Is it, however, reliable when the final judgement is made by consumers who have rarely seen roasted beans and almost never the green beans?
The evolution of coffee tasting
Although instruments have been created to analyse the quality of coffee cherries and beans, our senses remain the only practical test of flavour.
Less than 20 years ago, each coffee producing country had its own system for grading coffee. Taste wasn’t always included in the evaluation, so there was widespread confusion about what ‘quality’ meant.
The search began for processes that could be adopted for a harmonised world-wide system to evaluate coffee quality. Alongside our growing passion for specialty coffee over the last 15 years techniques that use our senses to assess coffee quality and flavour have developed.
The Specialty Coffee Standard is now widely used to define green coffee that can be considered ‘Specialty Grade’. The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Cupping Protocol is used to grade specialty coffee. Its ten-point profile is more comprehensive than previous methods and it is used generally for Arabica coffee, rather than focusing on a single country of origin.
Cupping as a measure of coffee quality
Using a new cupping protocol that focuses on the sensory profile of coffee demands a
a new generation of coffee professionals who are trained in sensory assessment.
Tools such as the Coffee Wheel and ‘Le Nez du Café’ kit have been developed using a range of reference aromas to standardize the approach. Courses have also been created to develop taste-assessment skills in addition to sensory skills.
All of this has now been included in a widely-used six-day course and examination for ‘Q Graders’. Importantly, this has created a recognized language to describe coffee quality. This terminology has now been grouped in categories and structured to produce a Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel.
Inevitably there are now online tools and apps based on these approaches to support collaborative cupping and to create visual representations.
The cupping protocol
The standardized approach can be divided into two parts; sample preparation
and sensory assessment.
The conditions for roasting, grinding and brewing the coffee beans are set and ten sensory assessments are made. Firstly, quality scores are given for fragrance/aroma, flavour, after-taste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, lack of defects (clean-cup), and sweetness. Any defects are identified and an overall assessment is included in a total score. Secondly, intensity ratings are given for attributes including fragrance, aroma, acidity and body. Finally, more subjective descriptive terms are used about fragrance, aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity and body.
Cupping as a tool for decision-making
Cupping is the only approach to quality commonly used throughout the coffee value chain, from tree to cup. Other measures, such as the number of defects or roast degree, are useful for specific stages along the chain but are only helpful as a quality measure when they are correlated with cup flavour. These measures certainly can’t answer questions about which is the ‘best’ coffee when cost of production is also a consideration.
The specialty coffee industry increasingly uses the cupping ‘Final Score’ as an indicator of value. Other than the fermentation method, this approach is only reliable when other parameters are consistent, on a single farm, for example. Cupping can therefore be a valid tool for helping to choose the location of a coffee farm, assessing the quality of coffee from neighbouring plantations.
It is more typically used to make decisions after harvesting concerning the variables involved in processing, fermentation and drying. Importers and roasters will also use tasting to value the beans.
The effectiveness of the method depends on the availability of cupping laboratories and qualified cuppers throughout the value chain. While sensory skills and processes can be developed though the Q Grader training course, it is only through experience that cuppers can develop their own mental reference library of coffee profiles and characteristics.
The full cupping protocol can be time-consuming, so large volume green coffee traders who do not focus on the high-end specialty market will use a ‘rapid’ method. These might be company-specific and won’t give comparable quality measures.
Dark roast and espresso-based drinks can’t be assessed using the same approach used for green beans, so roasters and retailers have developed their own tasting protocols.
Other parameters in coffee quality
The flavour profile must be the ultimate quality parameter for coffee. Physical and chemical characteristics alone are not reliable indicators of quality.
However, coffee cherry ripeness is known to be an indicator of quality that can be assessed using photographs of cherry colour throughout the ripening process, although this is normally variety-specific.
Sugar content or ‘brix’ (°BX) can also be used to determine ripeness and suitability.
The number of beans damaged during the pulping process can also be used as a measure.
Acidity or pH is also a good indicator during the fermentation process in pulped coffees, although this can vary, depending on conditions.
Bean temperature and moisture levels can also affect the final flavour.
Sensory assessment of coffee quality will continue to evolve and more reliable global tools for consistent cupping results will be developed.
Training cuppers with a revised Flavour Wheel will be a priority for coffee producing countries, ensuring consistency of quality decisions throughout growing and processing. It will certainly need be extended to apply to Robusta coffee.
Above all, improved understanding between sensory experts, flavour chemists, and other scientists will improve our understanding of the complex business of assessing coffee quality in years to come.
Based on ‘Flavour as the common thread for coffee quality along the value chain’ by Mario R. Fernández-Alduenda, from the Coffee Quality Institute, USA