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FOREST ON CAFFEINE: HOW COFFEE HELPS FORESTS GROW FASTER

Photo Credit: Dan Ramirez-Pixaby

In many organic agriculture systems, good compost is currency. Broken down organic matter, be it leaves, kitchen scraps, or unharvested crops transforms into a nutrient-dense soil additive that gives plants an obvious boost in growth/productivity.

Researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa conducted a study using two plots of land. Both plots had been deforested and then used either for agriculture or grazing animals and then was left unreclaimed.

Both plots were inhabited by non-native grasses that choked out any native trees trying to compete for sunlight and nutrients. The researchers dumped 20 inches of coffee cherry pulp on one plot of land and left the other as it was.

After two years, 80% of the coffee pulp plot was covered by young native trees, some as tall as 16 feet while the other plot merely had 20% canopy cover.

A number of ecological processes are going on here. First, the breakdown of the coffee pulp adds a tremendous dose of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other important nutrients that plants need. Another beautiful aspect of compost is that it’s alive. As bacteria consume the spent coffee pulp, the heat of the pile increases dramatically. It isn’t hot enough to burn your hand but it is certainly hot enough to kill the invasive grasses and their seeds.

One particularly unique aspect of the coffee pulp experiment is that it attracts birds and likely small mammals which, in turn, attracts poop. Many birds and mammals eat seeds from native plants and trees.

So while they are munching on old coffee pulp, they are depositing seeds throughout the nutrient-dense pile. This gives the natives a head start in terms of sunlight and nutrients which should give them the leg up against the invasive grasses.

Other experiments like this have been tested with oranges and other organic matter. The only potential downside to this method is the potential pollution to watersheds. Although the nutrient-dense punch is great for plants, it’s also great for algae. As a result, after a heavy storm, the nutrients could run into the water supply causing an algal bloom which isn’t ideal for aquatic ecosystems.

If we can find a safe way to turn agricultural waste into a regenerative force for native ecosystems, I’m game. We should also be slightly concerned about the source of agricultural waste.

Organic agriculture tends to limit pesticide use but a mound of pesticide tainted crops will likely negatively impact the native environment rather than heal it. The coffee pulp experiment showed some incredible results and hopefully, we can utilize this process for restoration around the world.

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