SFSI Faculty Ivette Perfecto on Coffee, Biodiversity, and Social Justice
This article was printed in the University Record on April 18, 2016 (full article here)
By Iris Jeffries
School of Natural Resources and Environment Professor Ivette Perfecto has spent more than 20 years studying the ecology of coffee farms.
“You find a huge range of systems on coffee farms,” says Perfecto, George Willis Pack Professor and professor of natural resources and environment. “I wanted to understand better what this diversity does in the ecosystem, and how it contributes to the sustainability and productivity of the farms.”
Today, many traditional coffee agroforestry systems convert to coffee monocultures in order to increase yields. The change eliminates trees to increase photosynthesis levels, and thus, coffee production.
“When you convert to monocultures of coffee, you lose a lot of associated biodiversity,” Perfecto says. “My graduate students and I have solid evidence that diversity in coffee plantations contributes to the control of pests, among other ecological services.”
Ivette Perfecto, professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, studies the ecology of coffee farms and their sustainability and productivity. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)
With a primary focus on spiders, ants, birds and bats — Perfecto investigates how such organisms contribute to or control the pests in coffee.
“We started looking at the ecosystem services provided by biodiversity in shaded coffee farms and what is lost when shade trees are removed,” Perfecto says.
Perfecto’s work demonstrates that shaded coffee maintains high levels of biodiversity that contribute positively to the farms. Along with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Perfecto promotes traditional shaded plantations.
“Not only is it good to leave shade trees for the birds on their migratory paths, but it’s important to look at what the birds do for the farm,” Perfecto says. “The more diversity you have there, the more mechanisms of prevention of pest outbreaks you have there, built right into the system.”
Birds’ presence on coffee farms helps to suppress pest outbreaks. Still, many farmers are more interested in short term financial gain and turn to pesticides which sometimes are provided at low cost by the government.
“Coffee is a very important export crop in many countries in Latin America,” Perfecto explains. “With more and more demand for coffee production, farmers opt to utilize cheap pesticides and shaded farms occur less and less.”
While some farmers do maintain shaded coffee farms, there are incentives to intensify.
Furthermore, “coffee rust” has recently devastated coffee production in Central America. No one truly knows the root cause of the outbreak.
“We have our theories about the intensification effects of coffee at the landscape level,” Perfecto says, implying that deforestation and the reduced number of shaded coffee farms is to blame, at least partially. “Because shaded coffee farms reduce wind, it would also reduce the dispersal of the spores of the coffee rust.”
Here at Michigan, Perfecto busies her research lab with two Ph.D. students and eight master’s students while teaching courses. Beyond work, Perfecto and her students gather in the lab and play music or have salsa-dancing parties. They once even tried to establish a ukulele band.
“It’s not my exclusive work,” Perfecto says of her research. “My students have done most of it!”
Q & A
What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?
In general I enjoy teaching and I have very fond memories of interactions with students in the classroom.
What can’t you live without?
Interactions with students. They are the ones that keep bringing interesting questions or fresh ways to look at a particular research question. Although I enjoy doing research a lot, it would not be as much fun without students.
What is your favorite spot on campus?
The Arb, although I don’t go there as often as I would like.
What inspires you?
Nature and social justice.
What are you currently reading?
“The Swerve: How the World became Modern,” by S. Greenblatt, and “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” by C. C. Mann.
Who had the biggest/greatest influence on your career path?
John Vandermeer and Richard Levins.