A new coffee variety named Starmaya may offer a glimpse into a much brighter future for the coffee plant. Starmaya, selected by coffee traders Ecom and agricultural research organization CIRAD will be tested in farmer fields in 2017, is the first variety of its kind: an F1 hybrid that is propagated by seed, rather than through costly biotechnology. Researchers hope that it could mean widespread access for coffee farmers to an elite class of varieties that will dramatically reshape the industry in the decades to come.
In coffee as in other crops, F1 hybrids have the potential to combine traits that matter most to farmers—higher yields and disease resistance—with the trait that matters most to consumers—taste, a combination that has been difficult to attain in the past. But F1 hybrids are traditionally limited by the fact that they can only be produced by technically sophisticated nurseries, of which there are only a handful in the world.
Until now, the only way to efficiently reproduce F1 hybrids for farmers has been through clonal propagation, which must be done in laboratories. But there are few labs that produce coffee hybrids commercially in the world, and the cost can be double that of plants reproduced by seed. None of the existing labs produces more than 1 million seedlings per year.
Starmaya represents a major breakthrough in coffee breeding that suggests the main constraint on the widespread production of F1 hybrids for farmers around the world may soon fall away.
World Coffee Research, whose global research agenda includes boosting the use of new technologies that benefit the coffee sector, will incorporate Starmaya into many of its research programs, including the Global Coffee Monitoring Platform, a network of hundreds of on-farm technology trials, and into any new locations of the International Multilocation Variety Trial, the world’s largest coffee seed exchange. The organisation also plans to support and accelerate the creation of new seed-propagated F1 hybrids that are high quality, high yielding, disease resistant, and climate-smart.
So far, Starmaya is the only F1 hybrid from seed. But researchers are actively looking for more varieties exhibiting male sterility that could be used in breeding. World Coffee Research is also actively working to identify how male sterility works such that it might be possible to turn sterility on and off in any variety. This would open up the universe of known Arabica varieties to be used in breeding new F1 hybrids.