Global Coffee Report discovers the history and significance of World Coffee Research’s F1 project that is not only focused on high yielding varieties under the effects of climate change, but coffee that tastes great.
Despite being in a relatively early stage of development, first-generation (F1) hybrid coffee varieties are increasingly seen as an important and viable path forward for the coffee industry.
As temperatures increase, coffee growing land decreases, and crop productivity becomes paramount to farmers’ survival, 2021 marks the fifth year in which World Coffee Research (WCR), a collaborative, industry-driven R&D nonprofit, is testing potential new F1 hybrid varieties in early-stage field trials.
This project not only seeks to create high yielding varieties that can perform under a wide range of environments, but quality-driven coffee there is a market for. As such, international coffee roasters were involved from the beginning.
“F1 hybrid varieties are created by crossing two genetically distinct plant parents that have specific complementary features,” says Jorge Berny, Breeding and Technical Manager at WCR.
“The offspring has the potential to offer unique advantages beyond either of its parents, such as higher production, in-cup quality or greater disease resistance. It’s a way to progress the coffee industry faster.”
The first F1 hybrid varieties in coffee were created by a collaborative breeding effort that predates WCR’s formation. Four countries including Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, under the PROMECAFE umbrella, collaborated with French research institution CIRAD and a coffee genebank in Costa Rica (CATIE) to create and release four F1 hybrids in 2010. Of those, one in particular, Centroamericano, also known by its breeding code, H1, has seen growing demand by farmers in the region.
WCR began a focused F1 hybrid breeding effort in 2015, with the idea that continuous improvement is needed by farmers.
“At the time, it still wasn’t clear if farmers would accept these new F1 hybrids, and if roasters would like them, too,” says Hanna Neuschwander, WCR Communications Director. “But it was clear that they offered real advantages for productivity, and they can be brought to market faster than traditional varieties, which take 25-plus years. We initiated the program based on that urgency.”
WCR’s project saw the creation of 46 F1 hybrid crosses in 2015 using various materials including commercially available varieties known for yield, rust resistance and cup quality, as well as genetically diverse Arabicas that had not been used in breeding before.
The crosses were then planted at six sites of varying altitudes and climates in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Rwanda between 2016 and 2018. Over five harvest cycles, the performance of the different crosses is observed across all the sites to see which perform best in terms of yield, cup quality, and rust incidence, as well as which are the most stable across environments, a critical proxy for climate resilience.
Aquiares Estate, located in Costa Rica, is one of the farms where the experimental varieties were planted. It is the largest continuous, carbon neutral coffee farm and holds a community of more than 2000 members.
“As producers, it is important to always try and be at the forefront of technology — especially due to climate change. With limited coffee genetic variety, we can only respond to climate, pest, or other pressures in a limited way,” says Diego Robelo, General Manager Aquiares Estate.
“With this project, we are aiming to create a real-life example which others can follow, because not a lot of farmers have the resources or time to do this type of research,” says Robelo.
WCR’s Neuschwander echoes Robelo’s sentiment, stating that one of the greatest challenges with coffee plants is the dedication and funds required for multi-year field trials.
“It requires a lot of patience,” she says. “You need at least two years to produce the first harvest, then you need multiple harvest years’ worth of data to make good judgements.”
As such, it wasn’t until 2020 that the first round of coffee beans from these F1 hybrids had been picked, processed, and were ready to be cupped by roasters across the globe.
“We aren’t the first organisation to make hybrid crosses. But what’s been innovative about this program is that we are including feedback from a diverse and global group of significant coffee buyers who purchase millions of pounds of coffees every year,” says Neuschwander.
“We are taking into account their feedback from the very beginning of the process, so that, in effect, the market has a say in which candidates advance forward toward commercialisation.”
To evaluate the cup quality of these experimental varieties, WCR has distributed green samples to 60 companies over two years. Each participating company roasts the coffee according to their own specifications, and cups using the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) cup score scale. These roasters also answered questions such as whether the variety met current or planned product specifications and flavour preferences.
“We consider these product specifications and flavour profiles like shades of information which helps give us a read on the market. It also helps us identify the flavour and aroma attributes that are present and untangle the relationship between the two,” says Neuschwander.
“In the 2020 trials we interestingly found that everyone liked chocolate and sweet attributes. However, floral attributes were divisive, some people rated them high and some low.”
Both field trials and sensory evaluation are laborious processes, so Neuschwander says the project is also focused on investigating more efficient ways to screen candidates for quality.
After the 2020 cupping was complete, the F1 variety candidates were narrowed to a set of 15 of the most promising, which were once again sent to international roasters, including specialty coffee roaster Blue Bottle Coffee.
“We received 15 samples, which per our standards took about 24 hours to process, from roasting it then cupping it the next day along with time for data entry plus some other physical analysis such as screen size, moisture, and density,” says Shaun Puklavetz, Coffee Sourcing and Relationship Manager of Blue Bottle Coffee.
He says Blue Bottle Coffee was impressed with the overall quality, with the beans having typical tasting notes of Central American coffee including chocolatey and balanced with brown sugar.
Another cupping participant was the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan (SCAJ), a collection of Japanese importers, roasters, wholesalers, and micro-roasters. Across its association, a total of 19 companies received samples to cup, with the cupping arrangements proceeding smoothly.
Takao Ueshima, SCAJ Executive Director says it was critical for the association to be involved.
“As global warming proceeds, the issue of how to secure a sustainable supply of high-quality specialty coffee is very important,” he says. “We believe that varieties that maintain productivity and high quality while responding to climate warming are very important for the survival of our business of both producers and sellers in the future.”
The top two candidates have now been moved forward. WCR’s Berny says these hybrids will hopefully advance to larger-scale, on-farm trials in 2023. This phase will see the plants grown in a wider variety of places with greater volumes.
“This is where we will really see its potential and you look at it on a bigger scale: is it really better? Will it actually work for farmers?” says Berny.
Creating a hybrid plant, however, will not solve all farmers’ problems. One of the main challenges is related to the cost.
“Creating these hybrid plants is typically more expensive and requires either clonal propagation or manual cross pollination. This causes the prices of the plants to increase. On top of this, more productive varieties usually require more agricultural inputs like nutrition and water,” he says.
“This increased cost means hybrids are often better suited to well-established farmers with enough land and resources to trial these plants.”
WCR’s Neuschwander adds that another challenge is the lack of developed seed systems.
“The most important risk of using hybrids is that you shouldn’t save the seed – if you do, the resulting plant will not perform like its super-powered mother,” she says.
“If farmers save hybrid seed it can damage their livelihoods because the performance of a crop derived from an F1 plant can be extremely variable. So you wouldn’t want to release a F1 variety into a country that doesn’t have the seed system or farmer support capacity needed to minimise those risks.”
This means the benefits of hybrids are less straightforward for smallholder farmers, who produce 60 per cent of the world’s coffee and who typically save seed versus buying plants from established nurseries.
This is why in 2022 WCR will only test F1 varieties in established countries with national breeding programs and traders with facilities. One region is Costa Rica, due to its developed seed systems, high-capacity nurseries, and experienced researchers alongside the advanced training provided to farmers.
In the next phase, WCR will begin talks with national breeding programs and traders who have the means to introduce F1 hybrids to the market.
“It will, however, still be another three years for these varieties to mature, and another three to confirm the performance in the field and in the cup,” says Neuschwander.
That may seem like a long time, but it is still half as long as it takes to bring a traditional variety to market. And in the past 10 to 15 years, conversations around hybrids have completely changed, and there is the potential to do so again.
“It was previously thought that the risks outweighed the benefit, but we’ve seen so much curiosity and cautious optimism from both farmers and roasters. We are excited to see where this research goes next,” Neuschwander says.
For more information, visit www.worldcoffeeresearch.org
This article was first published in the January/February 2022 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.