CIRAD explores coffee beyond Arabica and Robusta

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Arabica and Robusta may dominate coffee cultivation, but CIRAD is exploring the possibilities of three wild coffee species that could diversify production.

There are more than 124 species of coffee in the world, but only two – Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (Robusta) – are cultivated at large volumes. The reason being, according to Benoît Bertrand, Geneticist and Coffee Value Chain Correspondent at the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), that until recently no other species were needed.

“We have two ‘champions’ in C. arabica and C. canephora. Arabica is special because of its very high quality, and for Robusta, the interest is in its high profitability – producing large volumes – and functionality – being usable in products like instant coffee,” Bertrand says.

“In the Philippines and Malaysia, there’s also a small production of Coffea liberica, but it’s marginal because the taste is not so good and the species is being abandoned in Africa due to [coffee wilt disease].” 

However, with the rise of specialty coffee around the world, Bertrand says there is an increasing interest to try new things, whether that be origins, post-harvest techniques, or even coffee species. At the same time, coffee producers are looking for new ways to increase the profitability and resilience of their crops.

“There’s too much coffee on the market, so the price for producers is low. The challenge is increasing coffee’s profitability, like has happened for other crops, wine for example. For years, wine was a product of low value, until the 1970s when a few chateaus or terroirs began receiving better prices. We need to think how we can do the same for coffee,” Bertrand says.

“How can we differentiate and produce better coffee with unique qualities? With this new [specialty coffee] trend, we think there’s opportunity to introduce new species that could allow farmers to produce coffee with a higher profitability.”

In early 2020, CIRAD – in collaboration with World Coffee Research and the Institute of Applied Genomics in Italy – published research showing that all Arabica coffee originated from a single plant 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. This “super individual” as Bertrand describes it, resulted from the cross of two species that don’t usually breed – C. canephora and Coffea eugenioides – and was able to self-reproduce, also extremely rare but not impossible for a cross-species plant like this.

Because all Arabica coffee resulted from this one relatively new plant, the species has a very limited genetic diversity. This makes it quite sensitive to climate change and disease. 

“Arabica is a super individual in the way it was able to be cultivated and grown in more than 50 countries around the world, but it faces problems with disease. The main problem is leaf rust, which manages to evolve as breeders introduce new defences and resistances to the plant,” Bertrand says. 

Climate change also poses a challenge in the future as temperatures rise and weather becomes erratic. To address this, CIRAD began analysing wild coffee species to determine their viability for coffee cultivation.

Three species in particular stood out to CIRAD as having potential and resistance to leaf rust: Coffea stenophylla, Coffea brevipes, and Coffea congensis.

“C. congensis is a species born in Africa, in the [Congo river basin], so the species is well adapted to excess precipitation or water. It could be interesting for some regions of the world where there is too much precipitation to grow coffee,” Bertrand says.

“C. stenophylla comes from the west of Africa, where the climate is very dry, with a temperature higher than is suitable for Arabica. We might be able to use stenophylla in those areas in the future where higher temperatures will be more common.

“C. brevipes comes from small mountains in central Arica – Cameroon, Gabon, and Congo – where it grows about 1000 metres above sea level. On those small mountains, in the Equatorial rainforest, there is a different climate with a high plant diversity and a lot of shade. In the future, it could potentially be adapted to grow in new conditions, like the Amazon or other parts of the world.”

These three species could be grown as crops themselves or crossed with Arabica or Robusta to produce sturdier plants. Regardless of the plant’s potential resistance to new environmental conditions, the species won’t be viable as crops if people don’t want to drink them.

“We have to imagine and adopt crops to scenarios of global warming, changing temperatures, and decreasing or increasing precipitation while maintaining the productivity and quality of the product,” Bertrand says.

“It’s a complicated matter, and before we introduce and start testing these new species, we need to evaluate their sensory qualities to see if they’re good enough for consumption.” 

To do this, CIRAD organised a tasting session on 10 December 2020 with three of its own researchers and 12 cuppers from coffee businesses across Europe. They included Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Nespresso, Starbucks, Supremo, AST Sensory Skills, l’Arbre à Café, La Claque, and Belco. Of the 12 jurors, eight attended the cupping in person and four took part remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The three species were roasted in three different ways to ensure the coffees expressed all of their aroma potential. They were presented to tasters in a blind cupping, alongside a Robusta coffee from Indonesia, a commodity-grade Arabica from Brazil, and a specialty Arabica from Ethiopia. Jurors sat at socially distanced benches where a red light was used to mask visible differences in the coffee, ensuring they focused only on sense of smell and taste.

“It was very interesting, because out of the 15 judges, they all had the same categorisation of the products. The best coffee was the best coffee for everyone,” Bertrand says.

CIRAD cannot reveal the exact results of the session until the research is officially published, however, Bertrand tells Global Coffee Report it has given researchers reassurance in the possibilities of the three species.

“The three species are good enough to be consumed and some provide qualities as good as a specialty coffee,” he says.

“The next step is to export seeds to a country where we can study the species in an agronomic situation at different altitudes with different climates.”

While the three species hold potential, Bertrand says this next stage of research is critical to see how they will handle being grown in different locations and conditions.

“We cannot say that these species will challenge the two champions, but they might fill certain ecological niches with higher temperatures, excess water, and rainforest climates,” Bertrand says.

“This is the intent, but it is impossible to say if we will have success with these species. For example, one could reveal it is very susceptible to a disease. When you deploy a new species in different conditions, you could face something you never imagined before.

“We have to be careful. The road is long to develop a new species and it is never sure. We can’t abandon a species because you can never know what the future will bring.”

Image credit: CIRAD

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