By Hanna Neuschwander, World Coffee Research
Deciding which variety of coffee to plant is perhaps the most important decision a farmer will make about his or her farm. It represents an investment of at least 10-15 years, often longer. The stakes are high. Will the variety be productive enough for the farmer to make a living? Will it be resistant to local diseases, pests, or other unknown threats a decade from now? Will it give excellent quality? If it’s a variety that requires significant inputs like fertilizers, will the farmer be able to afford or finance the costs?
In the coming decade, a significant percentage of coffee the world over will need to be replanted. Coffee trees decline in productivity as they age; they also become more susceptible to disease. We now know that one of the drivers of the coffee leaf rust outbreak in Central America wasn’t just the huge amount of land planted in leaf-rust-susceptible varieties, but also the age of the coffee trees. As of 2013, approximately 40 percent of the total area in Promecafé countries was planted in rust-susceptible varieties, and approximately 70 percent of all trees were 20 years or older (Coffee Rust Summit Major Findings 2013). Nearly 300,000 coffee farmers in Central America need to replant coffee due to losses from rust.
Meanwhile, based on unpublished in-country surveys of coffee farms in Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Tanzania, and Kenya, World Coffee Research (WCR) believes that more than 50 percent of trees in Africa are over 50 years old, and many do not have coffee leaf rust or coffee berry disease resistance. In the next decade, billions of coffee trees will need to be replaced. The decisions today’s farmers make about which varieties to use will impact the coffee business for the next 20 or more years.
What will they plant? Most farmers plant what’s available locally—either from their own saved seeds, or those of neighbors. Perhaps they work with a local extension agency or a nursery. But decision-making is often incidental rather than strategic. Rarely do coffee farmers have enough information to make choices based on what is optimal for their local conditions. Home gardeners in the U.S. can order vegetables or flowers from seed catalogs that include essential details like germination times, expected yield, optimal climate zones, and recommended fertilization. Unbelievably, coffee farmers—who earn their livelihoods based on the decisions they make about what kind of coffee to plant— don’t have a similar resource. The lack of a comprehensive, up-to-date coffee catalog puts farmers at risk. World Coffee Research, with support from USAID and Promecafé, is creating the first-ever catalog of coffee varieties for Central America, Peru, and Jamaica, which will bring urgently needed information to coffee farmers to help them decide which coffee is best for their situation.
Information is power. We expect the catalog to be distributed to tens of thousands of coffee farmers through national coffee cooperatives, and institutions, exporters, cooperatives and nurseries that supply coffee plants and seeds. We expect that on farms that use the catalog to make their replanting decisions, producers can expect to increase both the quality and volume of coffee by 10-15 percent.
That’s a huge start. But even if we could provide farmers with perfect information, many of them would remain at risk. Ultimately, most of today’s coffee varieties are not well adapted to the 21st century. Coffee varieties need to be more resilient to threats like climate change and pests; but they also need to taste better.
Many of the “improved” coffee varieties available to farmers today don’t have the same cup quality as traditional varieties. What does “improved” mean? Just that a coffee breeder painted pollen from one variety onto another, waited for offspring, and then selected the offspring that most closely expressed the traits they were looking for—and then repeated that process for 5-8 generations. Most “traditional” varieties are the result of bees or wind doing the pollinating and observant farmers doing the selecting. “Improved” does not mean genetically modified.
But lower cup quality isn’t inherent to the idea of “improved” varieties. Think of tomatoes. There are over 6,000 registered varieties of tomato. Hundreds of them have been bred specifically for their taste. So why do “improved” coffee varieties so often taste worse than their traditional counterparts? Because until very recently, coffee breeders simply weren’t selecting for quality traits when they developed new cultivars. “We didn’t look at quality at all,” says World Coffee Research breeder Bertrand Benoit. It wasn’t coffee breeders’ fault that quality was an afterthought. There’s a natural time lag between what coffee buyers and drinkers want. The market for quality- differentiated coffee is relatively new; in the 20th century, breeding a new variety often took two to three decades.
Costa Rica 95 (CR95) is a good example. A Catimor-like variety descendent from a cross between Hybrido de Timor (a natural cross of Arabica x Robusta) and Caturra, it was released in 1995 and initially growers loved it for its productivity and disease resistance. But the cup quality was significantly lower than other varieties and it had to be abandoned. “It was a severe lesson,” says Bertrand. “It was a wakeup call that quality was going to be more important going forward.”
World Coffee Research is using new techniques in genomics and molecular analysis to make up for lost time. We are working, in partnership with coffee institutions all over the world, to breed the next generation of varieties that will thrive in the 21st century. That means systematically selecting for climate resilience, disease resistance, high productivity— and quality. “The philosophy behind WCR’s breeding efforts is different than any breeding programs in the past,” says Bertrand. “The difference between the work 20 years ago and the work now is that now we care about quality. Before, breeders were working alone without connection to the industry. Because we are directly linked with industry now, we are getting direct input on what the industry wants, which is quality.”
What is the future for the traditional varieties specialty coffee buyers are so enamored of? From a farming perspective it’s not much of a choice. The quality premiums that specialty buyers are willing to pay are not high enough offset the productivity gains and lowered risk of varieties with traits like disease resistance. In Colombia, where the rust-resistant Castillo variety has been widely subsidized by the government, farmers have been ripping up the traditional Caturra at an incredible rate. More than 3.2 billion bushes have been replanted in the last seven years, 75 percent of them with Castillo. At a macro level, it’s paying off. The country’s production has rebounded to levels not seen since before the 2007 leaf rust outbreak in that country. Even if a buyer is paying a quality premium of one to two dollars per pound, the math usually doesn’t work out in favor of the traditional varieties.
But that doesn’t spell the end of quality coffee. On the contrary, by combining rigorous quality assessment tools like the World Coffee Research Coffee Lexicon with new (or newly-cheap) technology to correlate flavors and aromas to coffee’s molecular and genetic makeup, we can accelerate varietal development that truly incorporates quality as a primary consideration. In 10 years, we believe it’s possible that we’ll have varieties that taste as good as Caturra (or even Geisha), but yield as much as CR95.
In the meantime, there is exciting potential in the form of F1 hybrids. Hybrid vigor is a key concept in breeding. It means that the cross between two parents of different strains is better than either parent. The greater the genetic distance between the two parents, the greater the hybrid vigor. In numerous cultivated crops, hybrids have brought huge genetic progress. Corn is seven times more productive now than it was in 1960, largely because of this phenomenon.
If we’ve had hybrids in corn since the ‘60s, why don’t we see many F1 hybrids in coffee? For one thing, there are only a handful of breeders in coffee compared with thousands in crops like corn and rice. Decades of erosion to the public funding of institutions where most breeding research is done has meant that there is very little capacity for research into new coffee varieties globally. Plus, because hybrids work best when the parents are genetically distant, it means you need access to a collection of diverse plants. Breeders didn’t know much about the genetic diversity of C. Arabica until very recently. Most breeding in the last half century has been done with parents that are relatively close genetically. You must also be able to reproduce hybrids on a large scale—F1 hybrids cannot be (reliably) reproduced from seed. Coffee doesn’t have a well-developed seed sector that makes it easy to mass-produce hybrids.
But the tide is changing. A handful of new hybrids have been proven to provide high yields, resistance to rust, good adaptation to agroforestry systems, and promising cup quality. Furthermore, mass multiplication technologies have improved. As a result these varieties are gaining interest. These hybrids typically originate from a cross between an Ethiopian wild accession or landrace and a traditional or Catimor/Sarchimor group variety. Four Promecafé countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) together with CATIE and CIRAD have in the last 10 years released three F1 varieties: Centroamerica, Milenio, and Casiopea (also known by their breeder codes: H1, H8 and H10).
In an area of Guatemala devastated by leaf rust, we are working on a demonstration project, funded by the Starbucks Foundation, that will allow 336 coffee farmers to renovate their farms with the heirloom hybrid Centroamerica (a cross between Rume Sudan and T5296, a Sarchimor line). The farmers will receive the more expensive —but rust-resistant and vastly more productive (increases are estimated at 30-50 percent)—plants at no cost. We anticipate $400 of additional income for each farmer the first year after transplanting. By the end of the project, we expect to generate new income of $203,400 for all the beneficiaries. And we think that thanks to this project, within two to three years, most farmers in San Pedro Yepocapa will be interested in further renovation with the Centroamerica hybrid. WCR and our partner Anacafé will be there to work with NGOs, exporters, and coffee companies to support those efforts.
It’s no revelation that coffee farming is a precarious enterprise. It’s now well documented that significant numbers of coffee producers— not to mention hired farm labor—suffer from food insecurity for at least part of the year. Threats like changing climate and increased disease and pest outbreaks are making coffee farming riskier than it’s ever been. When farmers don’t have access to reliable information about varieties, or to high-quality planting material, they are further at risk. Conversely, coffee producers who have what we call “variety intelligence” make informed planting decisions, and are at lesser risk of threat from disease or pests; in turn, the risk to coffee importers and roasters is also lowered.
That’s why it’s World Coffee Research’s priority to get better information and better- quality coffee plants into the hands of farmers, immediately and in the future. Coffee roasters, importers, and cafes of all sizes can support our work at worldcoffeeresearch.org.
Hanna Neuschwander is the director of communications at World Coffee Research. She is the author of Left Coast Roast, a guidebook to artisan and influential coffee roasters on the west coast. Her writing about coffee and food has appeared in magazines and newspapers around the country. She has presented about coffee-related topics at everywhere from Boston to Panama City. She lives in Portland, Oregon. You can reach her at email@example.com.