“The world of knowledge takes a crazy turn when teachers themselves are taught to learn.” This quote, by Bertolt Brecht, begins the book and highlights how authors Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer found inspiration in their conversations with coffee farmers throughout decades of ecological research in Latin America. I, too, am an academic ecologist who has learned much from the farmers I work with in the semi‐arid high plains of Wyoming, an area so different from the coffee‐growing tropics. This book affords ecologists and entomologists the opportunity to apply their knowledge to the unique and important coffee system, and it's a book I plan to push into the hands of my grad students studying insect ecology in alfalfa and corn.
The authors state that the main goal of this book is to present an up‐to‐date picture of the ecology of the coffee agroecosystem. They provide examples of typical “syndromes of production” of coffee, contrasting more industrialized forms of production (sun‐grown coffee monoculture with no other plant species) with an agroecological alternative (shade‐grown coffee within a diverse forest). They set the stage by providing historical, political, and economic context for change between regimes.
The heart of the book is focused on placing basic ecological theory regarding biodiversity, spatial ecology, and multitrophic interactions within a series of examples, focused on the insect communities in coffee. One story follows the management impacts on the authors’ research site in southern Mexico. After two years of detailed ecological studies there (and 16 pages of the reader learning about that work) “the great transformation” occurs. Those 45 hectares of land change hands and the new owner decides to reduce shade by 30%, cutting down many trees and intensifying the coffee system at this site. The authors carefully and elegantly lead us through their hypothesis for what would happen to tropical arboreal Azteca ant populations following this change. They confront their ideas with data, walking us through the possible reasons for the initially counterintuitive results. Following along was as suspenseful as a good mystery novel. Unfortunately, in this moment, the book was pure ecology without the social dimension, and I found myself wondering: Why did the new owner decide to change the management scheme? Which factors drove the decision? And is there something we, as readers and scientists, could learn from that?
My main criticism of this book involves a practical constraint: It was difficult for me to read along and follow the detailed descriptions of contrasting theoretical models when I had to flip back and forth between pages to see the specific figure that was being referenced. This book is rich with informative figures, but to fully engage with all of the content, too much page‐flipping happened for my taste. In addition, some of the photographs did not translate well to grayscale in the black‐ and‐white book. An insert of color photo pages would be a welcome addition to really bring these ecosystems to life for those of us foreign to them.
At the close of the book, Perfecto and Vandermeer return to the social and economic dimensions of coffee production. I learned that not only is there Fair Trade certified coffee to ensure competitive pricing for the farmer, but also Bird Friendly coffee. This certification was established by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center to promote high‐quality habitat for birds and biodiversity conservation. The authors also explain community‐supported agriculture models that focus on direct interactions between coffee producers and consumers, such as the Community Agroecological Network based in Santa Cruz, California. This book has encouraged me to think more carefully about coffee in the marketplace and also about the complex web of interactions surrounding my own research back home.