The hybrid vigour phenomenon

While individual countries like Brazil, Colombia, France and the United States all have their own accomplishments in coffee breeding, World Coffee Research ( undefined

WCR) recently announced a breeding milestone at the global level.

At the National Coffee Association’s 2017 Annual Conference in March, WCR released its 2016 Annual Report and announced the creation of its first F1 hybrid varieties – what WCR founder Tim Schilling is calling the “holy grail” of coffee.

This super coffee is not only high yielding and extremely resilient, but also disease resistant and high quality when bred strategically.
Its higher yields and resilience to volatile weather – from frost to drought – is attributable to what breeders call heterosis, or hybrid vigour. It is a phenomenon in the genetics community that results in hybrids that are superior to their parents.

Because hybrid vigour is strongest between parents with maximum genetic diversity, WCR breeder Benoit Bertrand first began by researching the genetic distance between Arabica varieties.

While not new to breeding of other crops, leveraging heterosis is a relatively new approach to coffee simply because it has generally been neglected in the science and genetics arena.

Bertrand first wanted to use an F1 hybrid approach with coffee in 2000 after seeing the breeding technique being used en masse with much success for commercial production of maize, tomatoes, watermelons and other crops.

He met significant resistance and doubt at the start, but over the past decade he proved that the method could be applied to coffee and that gains to farmers were great enough to justify overcoming the challenges.

One of those challenges is propagation: F1 hybrids currently cannot be mass produced by seed. Instead, plant material from a mother F1 hybrid must be placed in a petri dish with growth hormone to propagate clones of the same high-quality, high-yield, resilient variety.

With Bertrand’s findings and a portion of WCR’s US$1.5 million startup capital, the newly formed World Coffee Research officially launched its own F1 hybrid project in 2012 as the cornerstone of the nonprofit’s work.

During the next four years, Bertrand and his team conducted genetic diversity analysis of 846 Arabicas to then create a new collection of varieties to breed with.

This “Core Collection” is made up of 100 highly genetically diverse varieties originating from Ethiopian coffee gardens and forests in the 1960s and 1970s.

With this collection and field research on the most-desired qualities of coffee plants, the team was able to identify which genetically distant varieties to breed to maximise hybrid vigour.

Finally, last year they pollinated five different mature “father” plants in test sites (including rust-resistant varieties like Marsallesa and some prized for high quality like Geisha) with pollen from genetically distant “mothers” in the Core Collection (eight wild Arabicas). The resulting seeds from the 46 pairings were then germinated in a nursery.

Just this spring, the infant plants were transplanted to three diverse field locations to monitor over the next five years: two research farms in Costa Rica, one at 650 metres (CATIE) and one at 1,350 metres (Starbucks’ “Finca Alsacia”); and WCR’s “Flor Amarilla” farm in El Salvador at 1000 metres.

A history of breeding
It was in the 1950s and ’60s that scientists first started breeding coffee for rust resistance by leveraging the Timor Hybrid, a naturally occurring cross between an Arabica and Robusta plant discovered in the 1920s, which had proven resilient against the fungus. Unfortunately, the lower cup quality of Robusta was also transferred into the hybrid, which proved problematic when a number of the new varieties hit mass market in the 1990s, at the same time as the specialty coffee wave.

“Farmers wanted rust resistance, but specialty coffee buyers didn’t want low-quality coffee,” says WCR Communications Director Hanna Neuschwander. “Farmers sometimes get stuck in the middle with these trade-offs. But this trade-off isn’t a necessary one. The new class of F1 hybrids are demonstrating that high cup quality and disease resistance can be found in the same plant.”

The question remains, however, as to why coffee breeding seemed to stagnate with that first push in the late ’60s.
Schilling attributes this to a couple of reasons, the first being colonisers’ presence in producing countries at that time: “Before the producing countries went through independence, the colonisers there were [investing in] research and breeding.”

When the colonisers left, the research and breeding efforts left with them.

On top of that, there was another significant economic and geographic factor that led to coffee’s relative neglect as a commodity crop.

“Coffee is what we call an orphan crop,” Schilling tells Global Coffee Report. “The producing countries haven’t had the resources to nurture the crop and in the consuming countries it was hard to make an argument for funding research in far-away tropical locations. Why would you take your taxpayer’s money to fund innovation in coffee? Especially when no one has been shouting about it because things have been going relatively well over the decades.”

Adds Neuschwander: “Coffee is produced in poor countries, sold in rich countries and researched in neither.” The drastic distances – both physical and supply chain distances – between coffee seed and cup facilitate a level of naiveté among the coffee drinkers in those “rich countries” about the true situation with the global commodity.

Meanwhile, “everything is not fine,” says Schilling. “There will be continued blips on the radar – the coffee leaf rust epidemic in Central America, prolonged drought in Brazil, heavy rains in Indonesia. But pretty soon they won’t just stay blips. They’ll become bigger crises.”

Neuschwander – and likely most affected farmers – puts the coffee leaf rust outbreak in those regions at crisis proportions, personally calling it the industry’s “first true crisis.”

WCR breeding

Breeding for the future
“One of the clear, immediate reasons WCR was created was a recognition that the coffee plant can’t sustain the industry by itself – it needs our help,” Neuschwander tells GCR. “When we launched our breeding program, we decided that F1s were going to be our focus for the immediate future because they deliver impressive results on a faster timeline than traditional breeding. And if we don’t start getting better plants in the ground today, we’re going to see a lot of farmers drop out of farming.”

Because of climate change, things are moving fast,” adds Schilling. “This strategy is something that allows us to accelerate our progress. We can get these varieties to the market in seven to 10 years instead of 30.”

The innovation in F1 breeding comes at a price, however.

According to WCR, they are significantly more expensive to produce and relatively hard for farmers to access because F1 hybrids can only be reproduced on a large scale in tissue culture laboratories.

Fortunately, third-party research and development in recent years has already reduced the per-plant cost by about 65 to 75 per cent. And WCR is researching whether it might become possible in the future to reproduce F1 hybrids by seed, which is a cheaper and more efficient method.

Additionally, WCR has a tandem project of certifying nurseries in coffee-growing regions to help bridge the gap between the F1s and farmers in remote areas with limited infrastructure.

The folks at WCR see these initiatives as part of a larger system shift that needs to happen in the industry.

Neuschwander cites Conservation International’s Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a call to action to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product.

One of the commitments as part of the challenge is to renovate 1 billion coffee trees by 2025 – ideally replacing them with more resilient varieties like those from the F1 project.

“There’s now a vast amount of attention and energy focused on coffee, particularly on renovating coffee farms,” Schilling says. “Big companies are very concerned and so they are starting to put their funds together for renovation programs.”

In fact, Starbucks provided initial funding for the Challenge, having worked with Conservation International on its sustainability efforts since 2000, and has committed to providing 100 million coffee trees to farmers by 2025.

After centuries of neglect, the orphan crop is finally getting some attention as the industry closes another year in global deficit while demand increases at a steady pace.

“We need to be innovative and thinking about transforming the sector,” says Schilling. “It has to be done. We will not be able to have 21st century coffee without it.” GCR

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