Coffee technology transfer: CIRAD Ecom public-private partnership

Story by Dr Christophe Montagnon, Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche pour le Développement For the last 50 years, coffee productivity measured as the weight of green coffee produced per hectare has been stagnating in coffee producing countries, with the notable exceptions of Brazil, Colombia and Vietnam. As a consequence, production costs in most countries have increased – thus negatively impacting the competitiveness of the coffee production sector. In periods of very low prices, coffee farmers can no longer afford to wait for better times – they switch to other crops or other activities. The result is that when prices increase again, a significant number of coffee trees have disappeared, precluding a return to previous production levels. This is especially true for high quality arabica coffees. Most analysts consider a lack of research and development (R&D) and subsequent new technology transfers (TT) to be key factors leading to the stagnation of productivity. Evidence of this theory is that R&D and TT have boosted productivity in the three exceptional countries, Brazil, Colombia and Vietnam, which have increased production levels. The analysis in this article, therefore, mostly refers to the numerous remaining coffee producing countries that are struggling with productivity levels. Improved varieties have proven to be the basis of increasing volumes in other major cultivated crops. As far as coffee is concerned, however, few innovative varieties have been selected. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of Catimors variety was released. They had the great advantage of being resistant to rust and Coffee Berry Disease – the most damaging diseases in coffee – thanks to resistant genes present in the Timor Hybrid and originating from robusta ancestors. The selection was so highly oriented towards disease resistance that quality was somewhat forgotten. As a result, following much debate, the market largely rejected Catimors-like varieties, especially in the upper quality segment. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche pour le Développement (CIRAD) started working with the Central American coffee institutes including Icafé in Costa Rica; Procafé in El Salvador; Anacafé in Guatemala and Ihcafé in Honduras; and then with the Ecom group to select a new generation of varieties: referred to as the F1 coffee varieties. These varieties were selected from crosses between traditional dwarf varieties and until then unused spontaneous arabica trees surveyed in the 1960s in their homeland of Ethiopia under the auspices of the FAO and the French cooperation. These innovative breeding programs looked to combine high yield with excellent cup quality. First, high yield was secured because of the well-known hybrid vigor, or heterosis, that occurs in plant breeding when two genetic distant parents are crossed. This heterosis was the biological basis of the success of the F1 hybrids in maize, for example, which were created in the 1940s. Second, the Ethiopian trees constitute an incredible source of genetic diversity, providing resistant genes to the main diseases that threaten coffee plants, while continuing to maintain high quality. After 15 to 20 years of research, it is now well established that F1 coffee varieties produce some 40 per cent more than traditional varieties, while cup quality remains excellent.
Last but not least, these varieties are adapted to shade. This helps avoid the long lasting conflict that exists in the highlands of Mesoamerica, where high production can often come at a cost of unsustainable production that threatens the environment. These new varieties allow what CIRAD calls “ecologically intensive” production. As mentioned before, the new F1 varieties are performing well because of the heterosis (hybrid vigor) they exhibit. Without entering into too much detail, it is related to their high level of heterozygosity while traditional varieties are highly homozygote. As a result, in an autogamous plant like Coffea Arabica, direct multiplication through seed is difficult. CIRAD researchers and partners, however, have developed somatic embryogenesis technology adapted to arabica coffee that permits us to perfectly and safely “photocopy” a tree at a very high rate. This high-technology method has nothing to do with GMOs, it is essentially a very powerful photocopier. This technology opened the way to the possibility of making these improved varieties available at large scale for growers. The next step was to upgrade and mass produce the new varieties through somatic embryogenesis. It was soon observed that such an activity should probably not be run by public research institutes, but rather by private entrepreneurs who are able to not only invest  in the project, but also manage and organise production and distribution to growers. That is where the partnership between CIRAD and the Ecom Group started. A decade ago, analysing the devastating effect of the coffee crisis, Ecom executives thought they had to do something to help producers grow coffee in an economically viable way to remain sustainable for a longer term. Because of their close relationship with producers in origin countries, they came to the conclusion that a good strategy would be to provide growers with some of the latest innovations in the coffee production sector. Ecom contacted CIRAD and in 2004 the two groups decided to work together to transfer the somatic embryogenesis technology from CIRAD to Ecom to ensure the production of millions of new plants. The first laboratory was built in Sebaco, Nicaragua that same year and a second one was inaugurated in 2010 in Jalapa in Veracruz, Mexico. Upgrading a technology from research labs to mass production facilities is never an easy task. This has also been true in the case of somatic embryogenesis applied to arabica coffee. However, thanks to the perseverance and vision of both partners, Central America and Mexico today benefit from the first infrastructures worldwide able to mass produce these new improved varieties. While production of varieties was increasing, Ecom and CIRAD installed various demo-plots first in Central America and then in Mexico, with this latest generation of varieties. Growers could thus see for themselves the benefits of the new varieties and have grown increasingly aware of their potential. When the International Finance Corporation (IFC) became involved, the project grew into an IFC-Ecom-Nestlé project aimed at: “Strengthening the value chain for sustainable coffee in Central America and Southern Mexico”. The productive component of this project was led by CIRAD and focused on installing demo-plots with the new F1 varieties and raising growers awareness on their benefits.  An independent economic study on this project showed that the new F1 varieties had 130 per cent higher productivity after four years and 75 per cent greater productivity after seven years, producing over 20 qq (1 qq = 46 kilograms) of green coffee per hectare per year more than traditional varieties. Over a seven year period it was estimated that the traditional varieties generated a net present value of US$5774 per hectare compared to the new F1 varities’ value of US$11,244 per hectare. The study demonstrated the economic benefits of the investment in new F1 varieties, confirming this technology as a good financial investment for both farmers and financial institutions. This experience shows how excellent research can effectively add value all along the coffee chain when it meets the long-term vision of some of the chain’s major players. The well designed private-public-partnership involving CIRAD and Ecom proved to be able to make a great difference in the coffee value towards better productivity, while maintaining the highest quality and contributing to the preservation of the environment. It is a four-fold win-win – producers get a better income; the industry addresses concerns about quality coffee shortages; researchers apply the results of their work; and the coffee chain increases in value at every level. It furthermore paves the way for a innovative economic model where new relationships are built between traders and producers – where innovations produced by the research are brought to the latter by the former. Ecom is organising this new relationship through new-born SMS structures (Sustainable Management Services/Servicios de Manejo Sostenible), dedicated to providing technical assistance to growers where new varieties are part of the tool box helping them reach better productivity, better quality and at the end of the day a better income. 

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