Designing pest-suppressive multistrata perennial crop systems: shade-grown coffee in Central America
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During most of its cultivation in Central America, coffee (Coffea arabica L.) suffered few serious pest problems. However, over the past three decades, three factors contributed to significantly increase pest levels and losses: the recent introduction of new pests; more favorable conditions for existing pests, diseases, and weeds due to lower shade levels; and secondary pest problems caused by pesticide use. The strategy of maximizing coffee production with pest control dominated by synthetic pesticides has not only increased yields substantially, but also production costs, pesticide resistance, and both human health and environmental risks. An analysis of the response of the food web in coffee plantations to varying levels of light and humidity associated with different shade levels provides the basis for identifying the optimum shade conditions which minimize the entire pest complex and maximize the effects of beneficial microflora and fauna acting against it. These optimum shade conditions for pest suppression differ with climate, altitude, and soils. The selection of tree species and associations, density and spatial arrangement, as well as shade management regimes are critical decisions for shade strata design. Site-specific knowledge of the seasonal food web dynamics permits growers to determine the appropriate seasonal shade management in order to further suppress pest levels. For example in a low-elevation dry coffee zone, 35 to 65% shade promotes leaf retention in the dry season and reduces Cercospora coffeicola, weeds, and Planococcus citri; at the same time, it increases the effectiveness of microbial and parasitic organisms without contributing to increased Hemileia vastatrix levels or reducing yields. In these conditions, shade should be at a maximum early in the dry season and at a minimum by the middle of the rainy season. Further research is needed on: the effects of individual tree species on the food web; the role of canopy architecture for coffee vigor, photosynthesis, leaf drying, pest susceptibility, and pruning regimes; and on simple observation methods and decision criteria for farmer management of tree-coffee-food web interactions.
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