Global coffee researchers gather in London to agree on collaboration and seed exchange

Story by Vicente Partida, World Coffee Research Coffee scientists gathered in London this past month to begin plans for the first phase of research projects conducted under World Coffee Research (WCR). For the first time ever, coffee researchers from a variety of origin countries have agreed to collaborate on a series of projects to evaluate the world's elite Arabica material in different environments. The group of scientists who compose the WCR Technical Advisory Committee (WCR-TAC) also began plans for a global program to collect, catalog, and preserve coffee varieties from around the world. “The WCR International Multi-location Variety Trial (IMVT) Project is the platform by which our partners around the globe will test and evaluate a wide range of Arabica varieties,” said Dr. Timothy Schilling, Executive Director of WCR. “We want to test coffee varieties in a plethora of environments— environments that have problems with diseases, insects, fluctuating temperatures or other climatic events – so that we're able to evaluate and collect data on how well these varieties perform in different situations,” added Schilling. The ultimate goal, he explains, is to naturally improve Arabica coffees with high quality and high productivity attributes. For decades, agronomists and plant breeders have successfully used the multi-location variety trial method in breeding programs to make rapid gains in plant productivity for most of the crops that humans depend on today. Crops like maize, wheat, and soybeans are bred and naturally improved to be tolerant to new pests, diseases, and drought. Dr. Norman Borlaug, for example, used a similar method to breed a stronger wheat variety which has been credited for saving billions of lives. With a changing global climate, the threat of drought, pests, and diseases increases for all crops— including coffee— amplifying the need for research and breeding programs to maintain high quality and productivity. Most coffee-producing countries have their own research institutions that conduct coffee breeding programs funded by the public sector. However, as WCR-TAC Chairman Dr. Vincent Petiard explains, the real problem is that most of these research institutions have been using the same basic genetic material for over 50 years. “In the 1950s, the FAO distributed Ethiopian coffee trees to producing countries around the world. Since then, these countries have been crossing this material on their own looking for better combinations but without introducing new coffee varieties from the wild,” said Petiard. “So, everybody has pretty much the same genetic diversity and that diversity is very narrow. Without new germplasm and plant material coming from other areas and from the wild, you get quite rapidly into a kind of vicious cycle where you aren't really creating something new or stronger,” he added. Coffee researchers are very well aware of this problem and are ready to begin working together to fix it, explained Schilling. “We were very encouraged by the level of enthusiasm and participation that the countries showed at the meeting in London. Member countries   were keen to contribute their genetic material and in return receive other materials.” Origin countries tend to see their local varieties as a competitive advantage so sharing of genetic material for scientific purposes is not very common in the coffee sector, explains Schilling.  “That is all changing now to the benefit of producers and industry world-wide, it’s a new day.” The WCR-TAC scientists plan to distribute 30 coffee varieties from around the world and 60 advanced lines to each of WCR’s 15 Partner Institutions to test in several diverse locations within each country next to their local genetic materials. Data will be gathered on productivity and quality based on altitude, climatic conditions, pest and disease tolerance, and a variety of other factors that affect coffee. “The main objective here is to rapidly increase productivity and quality through the introduction of new and better varieties.” “The data that we collect as part of the IMVT Project will allow us to look at varieties better able to adapt to climate change, for example. Then, we will be able to investigate what traits make those varieties more resilient under those specific conditions and utilize that information in breeding programs to select for those traits and attributes in improved varieties,” said Schilling. Johanna Roman, Program Coordinator for World Coffee Research, said that WCR Partner Institutions will begin selecting trial sites soon and that the WCR-TAC expects propagation material exchange to initiate this year and experiments to be in field trials by 2013. “The research institutions will be able to take the varieties they develop and put them in the hands of farmers. Within five or ten years, we should see some great quality and production increases as a direct result of this program.” In addition to the IMVT Project, the group of scientists also began plans for the Coffee Germplasm Conservation and Use (CGCU) Project, Roman added. Germplasm collection involves gathering and cataloging genetic resources for living organisms (in this case, arabica coffee) and maintaining the genetic variability of a population. This is typically done for coffee in nurseries as seeds cannot be stored for more than 6 to 12 months in a typical seed bank. Collecting, maintaining, and preserving germplasm is important in plant populations because living organisms are ever-changing in their nature, explains Dr. Tim Davis, Assistant Director for Biodiversity at the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, the management entity of WCR. “Things are always changing for crops. There are always new diseases, new pests coming along, and we know the climate is changing. A crop that might be currently resistant to a particular insect, disease, or climate factor may no longer be that way in a few years,” he added. The function of a coffee germplasm collection, explains Davis, is similar to that of a public library for books. “When we talk about germplasm collections we are really talking about an organized catalog of genes that are kept alive so that one can always pull them back out and use them. If we don't do that, we risk eventually losing the crop or dramatically reducing its productivity therefore causing prices to rise,” he added.
Coffee germplasm “libraries” exist in many origin countries, says Tim Schilling. Existing collections, however, are very limited and lack genetic diversity. “The genetic variability currently existing among all cultivated Arabica coffee varieties in the world is only about 10% of the genetic variability in today's germplasm collections, but the genetic variability found in current germplasm collections only represents about 10% of the total variability that can be found in the wild arabica populations existing in nature,” added Schilling. “There is so much genetic potential in coffee that is yet to be discovered and utilized for the benefit of industry and producers!” Dr. Vincent Petiard added that WCR wants to help producing countries modernize the way they store coffee germplasm and create “backups of coffee material that can be protected in multiple locations against threats like fires, natural disasters, or political instability.” “My general impression of the meeting was very positive,” added Petiard. “There was absolute consensus among the scientists that these projects are very important and that WCR is the platform by which origin countries can collaborate with each other and with the entire coffee industry which is fully invested in this program.” “The difficult part is not the science; the challenge now is to get the full support of the local authorities where it is needed. WCR and the member scientists of the Technical Advisory Committee are looking forward to engaging local governments and ministries of agriculture of each country to successfully conduct these programs.”

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