World Coffee Research addresses hidden crisis

According to World Coffee Research (WCR), there is a hidden crisis threatening the coffee sector. A lack of seed traceability, deficient safeguards, and an absence of information are causing coffee plants around the world to underperform – leaving farmers at risk.

“Things are not always what they seem to be. If you do the genetic testing and look really closely at what farmers are purchasing, most of the time it’s not what they think they are getting,” says Dr. Kraig Kraft, Global Programs Director at WCR.

“Purchasing a plant is the single most important investment a farmer can make. They need to remove as much risk as possible from disease, weather, and other factors to recuperate the investment and make profit over the years.”

To help farmers grow productive plants and make informed decisions, WCR has partnered with Promecafe to launch two guides: Seed Production and Coffee Nursery Management. The guides address seed traceability and genetic purity to ensure plants are of the correct varieties, as well as the essential techniques to produce healthy plants.

The guides, released in November 2019, are available in English and Spanish and are entirely free to access online.

“Our goal is to identify the best practices for managing seed lots and plants so farmers can improve the probability of having productive plants and reduce loss. It’s meant to be a high-level reference and our hope is that different groups will take these and incorporate them into their own training and outreach programs,” Kraft tells Global Coffee Report.

To understand how the issue has escalated into a “hidden crisis”, Kraft and his colleague Emilia Umaña, Nursery Development Specialist at WCR, say it is important to recognise the fundamentals of coffee plant production.

“A coffee tree stays with you for many years. Every decision a farmer makes will affect their plantation and it all begins with identifying the right seeds,” Umaña says.

“There are so many uncontrollable variables that affect a harvest like soil, climate, natural disasters, and disease. It’s imperative to start with high-quality plants that are resilient.

If you start with the wrong plant, or a sick plant, you lock in underperformance for years, even decades to come.”

According to WCR, Arabica coffee is predominately self-pollinating, which should mean that genetic purity is easy to maintain. A majority of coffee seed lots around the world, however, commonly produce impure varieties.

“Typically, if you take seeds from the mother plant, you’ll get plants just like the mother. However, there is a low level of outcrossing so if you don’t isolate the mother plant, there is a higher probability that you’ll get a genetic mixture in there,” Kraft adds.

“Continual outcrossing over time means that seedlings get further and further away from the original source and develop undesirable genetic features. It turns out this is rampant in the coffee industry.”

It is normal for plants of the same variety to have slight variations from one another, but there is a threshold of how far the extent of the variation can occur before the quality of the crops is compromised.

According to the WCR Seed Production guide, best practice for isolating plants is to place seed lots 500 metres from any other plant variety in the farm. In smaller nurseries, 50 to 200 metres can also be acceptable if additional measures are taken into account. These distances will ensure a safeguard from wind and pollinating insects that can lead to outcrossing.

“Many of the varieties that people are planting today are actually populations, which means their genetic components aren’t ‘fixed’ yet. When that’s the case, you’ll tend to see a lot of heterogeneity in the plants once they develop, which is why we see such strange mixes of plants in farmers’ fields,” Kraft says.

Other common problems causing genetic impurity include simple mislabelling and accidental mixing.

Genetic purity isn’t the only problem. Umaña, who is currently based in Costa Rica, has seen first-hand the devastation that a lack of quality control is having on farmers.

“It’s like farmers are playing roulette when they buy seeds now. I’ve seen cases where farms have a 20 to 30 per cent mortality rate because the plants were not healthy. It’s a huge financial burden to replant the coffee. This gets compounded by the sunk costs of investing time and resources to grow and nurture the plant over years. Overall, it’s a tremendous waste of resources and can devastate a farmer’s livelihood,” she says.

“The majority of nurseries around the world are small and the operators don’t have formal training. They don’t have access to the right knowledge.”

Hanna Neuschwander, Director of Communications at WCR, says it is hard to measure the exact level of damage this crisis has caused due to a lack of official data and research.

“There’s no reliable global data or figures because the problem has only garnered attention recently. There’s huge disorganisation and fragmentation in the sector. There is, however, substantial anecdotal evidence that coffee farmers everywhere are being impacted by poor plant quality,” Neuschwander says.

“It’s easy to think about this as a problem that’s far away, but it’s a universal issue. It’s affecting crops everywhere. DNA testing is very new in the industry and is not cheap or easily accessible, so farmers don’t know what they are buying. In other forms of agriculture, farmers take healthy, pure seeds for granted. But, sadly, coffee farmers can’t.”

According to WCR, extensive knowledge about coffee production exists, but accessibility has traditionally been an issue.

“There’s so much knowledge out there about pest control, disease, nutrition, soil, and so on, but it’s traditionally been very centralised and in the hands of the few. This means that a lot of information that farmers and nursery managers rely on is outdated. Some of it has been published more than 30 or 40 years ago,” Neuschwander says. 

WCR has tapped into the knowledge of nursery experts, elite nurseries, and farming programs in the Americas to develop the best-practice guides. After gathering the information, WCR compiled it into a user-friendly and visually engaging format.

“One thing we focused on in the guides is how to identify critical points. Basically, if X isn’t happening with your plant, then you need to do Y to fix it. The guides are structured and easy to follow so nurseries can easily self-evaluate their operations. It’s really important to emphasise the importance of reducing risk and maximising the opportunity to have productive plants,” Neuschwander says.

The guides have adopted a three-tiered approach with bronze, silver, and gold levels to define best practice. This format was intentionally designed to ensure the information in the manuals can be applied to operations of all sizes and financial positions.

“Farms and nurseries come in different sizes and with varied resources, so the aim was to create an approach that is equally valuable for small-scale nurseries all the way through to huge operations,” Neuschwander says.

“If you can’t realistically attain gold standard due to resources, then a silver or bronze level may be achievable, which will still produce improved results, but with reduced costs.”

Nursery Development Specialist Umaña was part of the hands-on team involved in the development of the manuals. She had an opportunity to work with nursery operators in Puerto Rico to run training sessions and test the best-practice guides in a practical environment to gain feedback.

“We invited farmers to a nursery that they hadn’t been to before to trial the guides. They used the material in the manuals to identify quality, nutritional deficiencies, and perform other exercises with coffee plants,” Umaña says.

“They then took these learnings back to their own nurseries and came up with an action plan for the upcoming year’s cycle. We got some really positive feedback and it was fantastic to see the manuals be effective in a practical environment.”

Sintercafe in Costa Rica hosted an event to launch the manuals on 14 November 2019. According to Umaña, the launch was a success and brought key stakeholders together.

“It’s reactivating the conversation around seed traceability,” Umaña says.

“Factors like climate change are also heaping pressure onto farmers, so we need to get people in the industry on board to get things in order. We have received great support so far. People are realising that they need to act or we are going to lose a lot of farmers and countless families will be affected. It’s tragic.”

Neuschwander agrees that raising awareness is important and says that the lack of good systems for getting healthy, pure plants into farmers’ hands is a shared problem for the coffee industry.

She adds that the audience for the manuals isn’t just seed and nursery producers. It’s the entire supply chain including farmers, roasters, regional bodies, and governments.

“No-one succeeds when plants that should be healthy are sick. The whole traceability issue is a beautiful mess. Beautiful, because it’s coffee, but, oh boy, it’s a mess,” Neuschwander says.

“Partners like Promecafe are really important for spreading awareness. It’s daunting how large the problem is, but we’re confident that raising awareness and putting better tools in the hands of the industry will make a difference in the long term.”

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