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An orphan crop

From the November 2011 issue.

A new global initiative will see the coffee industry team up with scientists and producing countries to ensure the continued sustainability of coffee crops-and the livelihoods of its farmers.

Whether you’re working on a junior school research project or an advanced post-doctorate, the first step is always the same – background research.Timothy Schilling

When Dr Timothy Schilling, a geneticist who’s worked in agricultural development in Africa for 30 years, was asked by a group of specialty roasters in the United States to look into research on fermentation and post-fermentation processing, his first step was naturally to look up what work had already been conducted.

The search, however, didn't turn up very much.

“I was amazed to find out how little research had been done,” he says. What Schilling discovered is an issue the coffee industry worldwide is starting to address. With coffee produced almost entirely in developing countries with minimal resources, farmers have benefited little from research initiatives, with many using the same genetic strands and farming practices for decades. The result is a largely undiversified crop running a high risk of agricultural catastrophe and a production sector that is highly out of touch with the needs of its consuming clientele. For a commodity produced on such a grand scale, there is no single body overseeing the development of coffee as a crop. Unlike the wine and grain industries with their international organisations, Schilling says that coffee has emerged as an "orphan crop" when it comes to research and development.

While the industry has produced a few measures for quality, such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) Q-Cupping system based on subjective sensory evaluations, Schilling says that the industry has no real scientific assessment of quality.

From this core problem, Schilling and other scientists, producing countries and industry sectors, have started to develop a solution. In 2009, Schilling presented the initial results of his first experiment on fermentation back to the funding American roasters. From there, he was approached by Coffee Bean International and asked if there was a way to set up a long-term research program to secure funding from the industry on a permanent basis.

Schilling began to work with the SCAA and other coffee associations and at the 2011 SCAA Expo in Texas, they assembled 80 participants from across the industry and research organisations to discuss the launch of the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative (GCQRI) – the first major initiative to secure long-term funding to give this "orphan crop" a home.

“We framed what the concept was all about and discussed how we could execute it and importantly, if the industry was willing to fund it,” he says. “Essentially, at that congress we were deciding what themes were the most desirable by the industry.”

In any research they conduct, Schilling says the first thing they'll need will be a yardstick to measure quality. As such, the development of a next-generation sensory evaluation project is one of the first projects the initiative will fund.

“If you conduct scientific research, you have to be able to measure what you’re doing – and measure it well,” he says.

Dr. Christophe Montagnon, a quantitative geneticist at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), will serve as the principal scientist on the project, looking after the careful execution of the GCQRI’s first project.

“We have to be careful here in that we’re dealing with the industry’s money and we want to use that money effectively so that every dollar that’s invested will provide a return in terms of innovation and scientific findings,” Montagnon says. “If you want to improve quality, we know that the first thing you have to do is measure what that quality is.”

Christophe MontagnonMontagnon says that while the SCAA's Q-grading project was an impressive step in setting standards for assessment, the subjective nature of the process makes it difficult to apply in a scientific realm. With the existing Q-grading system, characteristics are ranked out of 100 and Montagnon notes that a more descriptive system is needed where two coffees that rank the same can be more specifically compared.

“The biggest problem is that the methodology is not really suitable for the research process. When you want to compare qualities, then you have to make statistical differences,” he says. “Maybe the existing protocols will be suitable – it’s never been tested. We expect to have to make some adjustments, but we’re not reinventing the wheel.”

Montagnon notes that the sensory evaluation project is nothing new in the agricultural research field. This has been widely applied in the wine industry and to most other crops.

In October this year, the initiative will start receiving proposals from diverse research organisations to undergo this initial project. The project, he says, will be an opportunity to combine the sensory expertise of tasters with the quantitative approach of science.

“What we know for sure, is that it will be a collaborative project between the industry and academic institutions,” he says. “We’re hoping to take as much as we can from the experience of the coffee sector. We know that we’re going to need a lot of training and a lot of cross checking.”

As so many other crops have benefitted from this approach, Montagnon says it’s certainly time for the coffee industry to follow suit.

“The coffee sector as a whole has not really paid attention to the research and development of raw materials. Roasters haven’t historically paid attention to productivity and quality in the field. It's not that they didn’t care – but, I think they just assumed that someone was dealing with that,” he says. “Can you imagine people who make bread not paying attention to the wheat? It doesn’t happen.”   

Schilling agrees that the disconnect between where coffee is consumed and where it is produced has led to the orphan status. Whereas wheat is produced in rich countries with governments who can afford to fund research, few countries where coffee is grown – apart from a few exceptions – have the capacity or the resources to undergo the kinds of projects the GCQRI will undergo.

It’s no coincidence, then, that this project has launched just as trends in direct trade and specialty coffee have taken off, where roasters are paying attention to conditions at origin. A major result of the Texas congress was the adoption of GCQRI guiding principles, adopted from the Borlang Institute for International Agriculture, with the first principle that everything must be done to enhance the livelihoods of the producers. In this respect, Schilling notes that the first project of developing a next-generation sensory evaluation may not be obviously linked to this initial principle, but in ensuring they promote industry-focused initiatives they’ll stay on track to securing long-term funding.

“Some projects that we’ll target will be more directly related to improving the livelihoods of farmers. The sensory evaluation is more of an industry-focused project, but we need to ensure we make our projects relevant to the industry,” says Schilling.

One of those projects that Schilling points to as being closer to the plantation level is the development of F1 hybrids and varieties, another research initiative topping the GCQRI's priority list. The project will see the development of F1 hybrids with heat tolerance and quality traits to mitigate climate change trends and Schilling says it will be “transformational” to the industry.

“You can just imagine how the entire industry would change if we could grow Arabica at 600 metres or higher with good cup quality,” he says. “We'd basically eliminate poor tasting Arabica coffees. The bar would move way up the pole. Higher altitude coffees, grown by traditional farmers, would become the 'grand crus' of coffee fetching huge prices.”

As a geneticist, Schilling says he’s most interested in future work like this to ensure the genetic sustainability of the crop. With little genetic research and no overseeing research organisation, coffee has very little genetic diversity. Although there is a huge amount of natural diversity of the coffee gene, he says current crops only represent 25 per cent of what’s out there. Such limited diversity, Schilling warns, could prove disastrous should a major disease hit the plants.

“Coffee as it is now is well-positioned for a major natural catastrophe like the potato famine,” he says. “It’s just like a train-wreck waiting to  happen.”

Ask Schilling about the GCQRI’s five-year plan and he hesitates to answer. It takes 20 years to develop a new variety of coffee from scratch and he says that the creation of this project is already 10 to 20 years too late. He sees the GCQRI not as a temporary project, but a permanent fixture.

“In research, there isn’t much you can do in five years. We like to look at things in the long-term,” he says. “For now, this is a permanent project, it’s indefinite. At the end of the day, however, the industry will want a return on their investment and it will be up to them to decide.” GCR


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