Just about every culture has its own version of the children’s game, Grapevine, whereby a simple message is whispered from person to person until it reaches the end of the chain, usually significantly altered from its original form. In the coffee world, it is suspected that a ve
rsion of this game has been played unwittingly between nurseries and farmers for many years, as different varieties of seed have been passed through networks with no way of verifying whether they really are the varieties that the people using them believe them to be.
Now World Coffee Research (WCR) is launching a new program to make sure that the Grapevine effect does not impact coffee farmers.
The World Coffee Research Verified Program will introduce a formalised system of quality control for coffee nurseries to ensure that the planting material farmers are purchasing is in fact the material they intend to plant.
By verifying that different seeds are in fact the variety that they are being sold as, WCR aims to eliminate some of the uncertainty that goes along with crop planting and renovations, WCR’s Communications Director, Hanna Neuschwander, tells GCR Mag.
“The way that the coffee sector has worked for many years is that their nurseries have been very local operations and there has been no way for nurseries and farmers to be sure of the genetic purity of their seeds, nor has there been a system for ensuring excellent, healthy plants,” Neuschwander says. “So the farmers are not always necessarily sure of what they’re getting.”
However if farmers are to get the most out of their crops, they need to be sure that the seeds they are getting are what they asked for.
This is because each region and farming style has different varieties to which they are best suited, and vice versa. So for farmers to get the best results from their their crops, they need to be assured they are planting the variety that is best suited to their region and offers the characteristics that they are after.
Just like Grapevine, much of the uncertainty around the authenticity of breeding material is often unintentional, the result of a system that has operated for so long without a means of external verification.
“A classic example of this is the Geisha variety – there’s lots of people planting it, and there’s lots of people selling it, but there’s not really any way to know that it’s all actually Geisha,” Neuschwander says. “In fact recent research indicates that what is commonly accepted as Geisha is probably at least two different types.”
This year WCR will be working with three nurseries in Central America – J. Hill Coffee Producers in El Salvador, Pilones de Antigua in Guatemala, and ECOM Trading in Nicaragua – to distribute verified seed and seedlings of coffee varieties best suited for cultivation in their regions.
An essential companion piece to the verification program is the simultaneous launch of a catalogue of coffee varieties in Central America, giving the farmers essential information about the capabilities of certain varieties and their ideal cultivation conditions – both in terms of planting environment and input requirements.
“The rationale behind the catalogue is that if a farmer, or a buyer of the seeds, doesn’t know what the capabilities and limitations of the variety are, they are apt to plant a variety that is not as well adapted to their environment or to their farming style,” Neuschwander says.
The catalogue will help to advise the farmer of the best variety for their needs, verified seeds of which may be purchased from the participating nurseries.
“One purpose of the variety catalogue is to help farmers make better informed decisions about which varieties to plant,” Neushwander says. “If you can imagine that perhaps tens of thousands of farmers suddenly have access to better information when they are going to plant, either in new land or renovating old land, it will lead to both quality – if that’s one of their goals – and productivity gains.”
While the verification program will be piloted in just the three participating nurseries this year, it is hoped that by 2017 it will be ready to be rolled out to other nurseries across Central America and then, ultimately to nurseries in coffee cultivating regions all across the world.
“There’s a clear argument in favour of farmers being able to go through nurseries and being sure that the plant is healthy, because one of the key causes of loss in productivity for farmers is the fact that they can buy plants less adapted to their production systems,” Neuschwander says.
“We are not talking about genetically modified coffee or ‘Round-Up Ready’ coffee, or even just an annual crop where the farmer becomes dependent on the nursery and has to go back to the nursery every year to continue with the crop.”
News of the pilot program has been warmly received by breeders and nurseries looking to improve the standard in their industries, as well as other groups with an interest in improving the standards of coffee production around the world.
“One of the places where we’ve had the most interest in this program is from coffee development programs,” Neuschwander says. “They’re very interested in being able to see the return on their investment, so an initiative like this mitigates some of the risk of the program because the reliability of the seed material is more certain.”
Neuschwander says that the verification program will bring security to farmers, while also bringing a greater degree of professionalism to the nursery sector.
“We will work with a nursery to do four things: Verified nurseries will all carry the catalogue that informs farmers about what varieties are out there and what their agronomic performance is. The second thing is they have to follow a set of best practice guidelines about looking after the planting material. The third thing is the genetic verification of specific seed lots that the nursery is carrying. And then the fourth one is that the nursery respects the plant breeder’s rights,” she says.
The focus on plant breeder’s rights, Neuschwander says, is part of a push to encourage more breeders to focus on the development of new varieties.
World Coffee Research estimates that there are less than 50 coffee breeders in the world, compared to many hundreds for crops like wheat and maize.
“[Registered varieties are] very uncommon – there are only about 10 varieties that have been registered – but it is something that we believe that will become more important in the future and we want to ensure that there is an incentive for breeders to continue working on new and improved varieties,” Neuschwander says.
WCR is focused on encouraging the development of a strong breeding and nursery sector in order to equip the coffee industry for the challenges ahead in the form of climate change.
“The bigger picture is that looking ahead at the potential impacts of climate change, the increase in disease prevalence, drought and the need for greater heat tolerance, farmers are going to need to be able to make better decisions about what coffee to plant, because it’s going to be harder to grow coffee,” Neuschwander says.
“So if they don’t have access to good material and they don’t know what they’ve got and they don’t know how it’s going to perform, then they’re at more risk than they already are, which is what we want to prevent.” GCR