Genetically modified coffee beans? A look at the great bean gene quandary

Story by Jacqueline Mcarthur Scientists call it “the Goldilocks plant”. Conditions need to be not too hot, not too cold. It likes it not too wet, not too dry. It doesn’t like too much sun, but too much shade is also bad news.
The plants that produce coffee beans are notoriously sensitive and small changes in temperature and precipitation can have large impacts on both quantity and quality.  A warming global climate, coupled with increases in super adaptive weeds and resilient pestilence, means production losses are escalating. Yet, the unquenchable demand for the world’s favourite cognitive enhancer grows and grows. The race to unpick the genetic secrets of coffee has never been more important.  However, the scientific community’s response has been an intriguing mix of concerted collaboration, secrecy and ambivalence.  Mapping the coffee genome and deciphering the important biological traits in coffee tree species has brought together an international network of geneticists. Yet, true advances in transgenic coffee plants designed to reduce production problems or enhance quality have been incremental and prohibitively expensive to execute. Vehement opposition and even vandalism have also played a part in genetically modified coffee’s slow start.  The International Coffee Genome Network (ICGN) – a network of scientists from universities, research institutes and industry – is spearheading collaborative studies within coffee producing and coffee consuming countries. The scientists believe developing common sets of genomic tools, plant populations and concepts – and conserving genetic resources – are the keys to ensuring the sustainability of the coffee production chain. But, coffee research suffers from a lack of investment, both scientific and financial,  unaided by the fact that coffee is a perennial plant with a time from seed to seed of about five years, making genetic studies more difficult and time consuming. While some genomic information is publicly available for coffee, it lags far behind what is available for many other agricultural species. As a result, coffee researchers have only limited access to the plethora of genomic resources available for most other major crops. Dr Chifumi Nagai, of the Hawaiian Agricultural Research Centre, a member of ICGN, says there are multiple benefits from DNA marker studies for the coffee industry. DNA markers can be used to select desirable coffee trees more efficiently and faster.  “With advances in DNA marker-assisted selection (MAS), plant breeders can use these markers in new variety development. Once DNA markers linked with important traits are identified, plant breeders could use these… speeding up breeding cycles by making crosses before all the cherry/bean data is available and lowering costs for field testing by reduced planting areas,” Nagai says. Speed (or lack thereof) and cost (of the eye-wateringly expensive variety) are the main factors in the delayed progress of genetically modifying coffee, as opposed to natural cross-breeding. Peter Baker, of bioscience not-for-profit CABI, has studied the global coffee industry for several years and says the challenge for GM coffee development is to come up with something that will “help fight the battles ahead, that responds to an urgent need and that convinces farmers to take the risk. But, the commercial interest in GM is waning.” A shortage of coffee genes to breed with outside Ethiopia and the very few coffee varieties in use attest to the difficulties of producing new varieties, Baker says. Drought resilience, disease resistance or delayed ripening are the most likely areas of gene exploration. Japanese researchers at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology managed to develop a caffeine-free coffee, designed to reduce costs and potentially improve taste by removing the need to process the coffee to eliminate the unwanted stimulant. However, caffeine is known to have insecticidal properties and has been linked to resistance to coffee berry disease, so it is possible that the costs of inputs would actually increase. But, pests could be deterred through development of higher resistance coffee plants. In 2000, researchers from the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) planted plots of both GM and unmodified coffee plants. The GM plants had been engineered to contain a toxin gene from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis, which holds a protein lethal to insects, but harmless to humans. They chose French Guiana for the trial because no coffee grows there – accidental GM gene pollution in specialty growers’ plantations would not be a storm in a teacup, but a fiasco. It wasn’t popular. In 2004, vandals ruined the world’s first and only outdoor trial of genetically engineered coffee after researchers there determined that they had found a way to protect crops from moth larvae. But, enough results were salvaged from the trial to show that an inserted toxin gene had protected the GM coffee plants against moth larvae. CABI’s Baker says that while the trees did survive, little is known about how this type of genetic modification has proceeded in the ensuing years. The story of GM coffee plants developed for delayed ripening in Hawaii is a study in the multiple hurdles faced by researchers and those wishing to commercialise their findings.    More than a decade ago, the University of Hawaii was granted a US patent on coffee that is genetically altered to stop growing just short of maturity so that berries are at the same stage when they are picked. A chemical spray then ripens the coffee. According to its endorsers, the technology would benefit mechanical harvesting efficiency gains and promises huge potential in quality improvement by unlocking fruit and seed development rates. It may have improved quality even at low altitudes and produced quality specialty coffee beans in bulk.  But, the 650 estate and commercial farmers of Kona were united in their resistance against a coffee without “aloha spirit”. “Even if they made a coffee tree that bore 40 pounds of cherry, that needed no fertiliser or water and had beans that jumped off the tree into the picking basket, it would not be Kona coffee with its 175 year heritage,” Christine Sheppard, former President of the Kona Coffee Council, said at the time. Integrated Coffee Technologies in Hawaii marketed the coffee and engineered coffee trees to yield caffeine-free beans. Pacific Land & Coffee sold the company last year; a haemorrhagic cash flow problem was cited as the reason. Baker says the GM coffee dilemma is universal and divisive. “Small countries are saying, ‘we can’t afford to develop it ourselves and it’s hard to differentiate it from our gourmet coffees which means we can’t afford to risk our image’.” Very few countries will be able to sustain the effort of a long research program anyway, he says. Five years ago coffee research budgets for Brazil were just US$10 million a year and in Colombia US$5 million a year. It is difficult to calculate current spending in these countries and few other nations have significant budgets. With research institutes already short of funds, elite research programs like GM can cause stinting on traditional research and require powerful advocates to see funds redirected. However, with climate change predicted to be the major factor in a 10 per cent drop in Brazil’s coffee production by 2020, can big countries and big companies afford not to engineer more drought tolerant varieties? Brazil’s coffee plantations extend across 5.7 million acres (2.3 million hectares), produce more than twice as much as the next-largest grower, Vietnam and are especially vulnerable to climate change. Eduardo Assad, an agronomist at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, (Embrapa) says biotechnology and genetic improvements are crucial, but time is running out. “Developing a new crop costs 12 million reais (US$6.7 million) a year over a decade and Brazil spends only a fraction of what it should,” Assad says. “Brazilian researchers are trying to develop coffee hybrids better adapted to warmer and drier conditions, but that could take years. Alternatively, the coffee farms might have to move.” If production management technology and gene modification can’t help “maybe coffee production can go to the south of Brazil,” Assad says. Working on more heat-resistant coffee varieties with longer roots is underway, but developing new varieties takes over a decade, he says. “Even genetically modified plants will have difficulty adapting to temperature increases beyond 2 degrees Celsius,” he says. Embrapa is also focusing on plants that naturally adapt well to high temperatures, such as manioc. It is hoped crops like these hold the genetic key that will help in the adaptation of other plants in times of global warming. Studying manioc genetics will explain how the plant can live in the dry soils and warm climates of north eastern Brazil. Even if gene technologists are successful in cracking the genetic code to engineering a game-changing variety,  the uptake of GM coffee by growers is very uncertain, according to CABI’s Baker. It may be that GM coffee varieties in general would be high yielding dwarf varieties requiring high inputs to perform well. These are unlikely to be grown by smallholders, with farmers operating on thin margins reluctant to replace trees up to 40 years old. Farmers need capital to migrate crops as well as proper infrastructure for processing and transport. GM varieties are likely to be developed for the more industrial Robusta coffee, while many smallholders grow Arabica varieties better suited for the specialty and organic sector. Also, large plantations can take advantage of the use of mechanised harvesting to increase the profitability of their operations. Dr Tewolde Egziabher, of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Agency, is concerned small farmers will be squeezed out of the market with GM coffee. “It’s a shift from a labour intensive to a capital intensive system from small farmers to large farmers,” he says.  It’s not just the recalibration of labour forces that may be required, but a perceived threat to unique cultures that has presaged a go-slow on GM research and adoption. For instance, Mexicans woke up to a nightmare when they found their tortillas and tacos would never be the same again after wild Mexican maize varieties were comprehensively contaminated with GM genes. Indigenous Mexicans were affronted by this; the basis of their civilisation polluted by foreigners for profit. A NAFTA watchdog panel study for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation agreed, saying gene transfers could damage Mexico’s vast storehouse of native corn, whose wild ancestral genes might one day be needed to help commercial crops overcome diseases or adverse conditions. As an integral part of Ethiopian society and culture, (it’s the only country in the world that consumes 50 per cent of its total production), coffee growers there would not fare well from a mistake in the lab or research farm.    Egziabher, who received international recognition for his work to safeguard the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources, says Coffea Arabica is commercially one of the most important crops, yet at the same time one of the most neglected crops in the world, with regard to genetic conservation. “It is difficult to conserve coffee germplasm ex-situ in gene banks, since its seeds do not stay viable for a long time, but deforestation is ruining whole ecosystems making in situ conservation difficult. Forget about GM,” he says “there is an urgent need to save the wild coffee genepool.” Gene fact
The International Coffee Genome Network (ICGN) is a network of scientists from universities, research institutes, and industry spearheading collaborative ­studies to develop a common set of genomic tools. They believe these tools are the key to ensuring sustainability of the coffee production chain.

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