World Coffee Research launches first global collaboration on coffee breeding in 50 years

World Coffee Research

World Coffee Research has launched the first global collaboration on coffee breeding in 50 years. Global Coffee Report explores the significance of the Innovea Global Coffee Breeding Network and how it will accelerate climate resilience and long-term coffee supplies.

Take a second to think about the world’s coffee supply in 30 years’ time. What will it look like? Will the market’s dominant players remain dominant? How will the impact of climate change alter coffee production? Will we be drinking real coffee at all, or will synthetic coffee take over?

With an urgent need to accelerate the pace of genetic improvement in coffee on a global scale, World Coffee Research (WCR) has launched a new global breeding network that strategically brings together producing countries to transform coffee breeding.

Titled Innovea, a portmanteau of “innovation” and “coffea”, the program’s unique collaborative design will enable nine participating countries – Costa Rica, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, Rwanda, Uganda, and the United States – to tackle the challenges of climate change togethe while maintaining their individual competitive positions.

“Accelerating the development of better varieties is absolutely essential for tackling climate change,” says WCR CEO Dr Jennifer “Vern” Long.

“Coffee faces a crisis of innovation that makes the industry’s sustainability, quality, and supply assurance goals impossible to achieve if we stay on the path we are on. But as we have seen with COVID-19, incredible solutions to urgent, global problems are made possible with scientific collaboration.”

As part of WCR’s membership, more than 200 coffee companies worldwide are funding the Innovea network, estimated to be multi-million-dollar investment with a 30-year timeline.

“Developing varieties and variety improvement programs are fundamentally the most high- leverage investment you can make, and when undertaken at a global scale, we achieve the maximum amount of value for everyone across the network,” says Long.

“We’re enabling sharing and collaboration, facilitating meetings, bringing partners together to talk about techniques and priorities, and having conversations that haven’t happened before. We’ve got breeders in Kenya who haven’t met breeders in Uganda – neighbouring countries – and they are very keen to learn from each other, not to mention India and Costa Rica.”

The network gives participating countries unrestricted access to new genetic materials, training in modern breeding approaches, and shared tools, while also connecting researchers across national boundaries to achieve results that would be impossible for programs working in isolation.

Long says one of the most important reasons Innovea is a global initiative opposed to a national one, is because of the value it drives and resilience it allows.

“This is the kind of model you need to actually be climate resilient,” she says. “No country knows what the future holds for them. There’s tremendous uncertainty 50 years out from now. Any variety we develop in this program is going to be going in the ground 10 to 20 years from now, and then it’s going to be producing coffee for 20 to 30 years after that. The choices we make today will, to a large degree, determine coffee supply in 50 years’ time.”

Long notes that Southern India’s current rising temperatures, humidity levels and shade methods, for example, could be the reality of other producing countries such as Peru or Indonesia in the years ahead.

“By having the material tested in India now, you have confidence that this material is going to succeed if the country’s [climate] changes. That’s why a global program like this drives value. Even if you had the smartest people and all the money in the world, working in a small country like Guatemala, you only have limited environmental variation. Working in only one country, you can never achieve the variability you get from a global network – or the resilience that comes from that,” she says.

An industry in need of development

Innovea’s launch marks the first global infusion of new breeding materials to coffee producing countries in more than 50 years.

In the late 1960s, coffee researchers at Centro de Investigação das Ferrugens do Cafeeiro (CIFC) in Portugal developed and distributed plants that were resistant to coffee leaf rust disease, to all major breeding programs around the world. These materials became the basis for most coffee breeding over the next half century, creating billions of dollars of benefit for farmers and helping sustain global supply in the face of multiple cycles of epidemic disease.

Today, WCR says that most Arabica origins globally continue to lean heavily on this single, 50-year-old program of innovation, alongside other fragmented national breeding efforts, which also often lack funding, training, and access to better genetic material.

“Each country has been doing their own thing in isolation, and what that’s amounted to in many cases is one breeder, a small collection of material they work with, and doing a few crosses in very traditional ways,” says Dr Tania Humphrey, WCR Director of Research and Development. “These breeding programs are bare bones in terms of capacity and technology application, and they’re not really operating at a level that will ensure a stable supply of coffee for the next 100 years given the urgency of climate change. We don’t often realise it, but the future of coffee depends on these programs thriving, and they are not thriving right now.”

Prior to working with WCR, Humphrey spent the past 13 years working in the horticultural sector, observing fruit and vegetable breeding programs in developed countries where there’s lots of investment in technology and high-capacity output.

“In many cases breeding takes place to service consumers in the country. Wine grape breeding for example happens in developed countries where there’s lots of resources to do it. In coffee, it’s not the case,” she says. “You have consuming countries where all the money and resources are and producing countries where the farming happens. The investments in farming, agriculture, and variety development are happening in producing countries that don’t have the resources. This structural separation in the industry has been a real barrier to investing in innovation.”

It’s for this reason that Humphrey recognises coffee as one of the least resourced industries. “Apple breeding is not using 100-year-old agricultural techniques, neither is strawberry breeding. Every other commodity market is making foundational investments. It’s a routinely normal thing in agriculture, but unfortunately coffee has a lot of catching up to do, largely because of the separation between coffee consumption and production,” she says.

WCR’s growing breeding team at the new site of the Innovea breeding factory. From left: Nick Muir, breeding manager; Dr. Tania Humphrey, research director; Julio Alvarado, breeding technician for Latin America; Jorge C. Berny Mier y Teran, research scientist for plant breeding and genomics.

Thankfully, WCR is the bridge attempting to join the pieces together and help flow resources, investments, and coordination to the whole coffee breeding process. Humphrey says previously, it’s been difficult to move coffee varietals between country borders but thankfully in negotiating this new network, the doors have opened to a pre-competitive solution.

“In any plant breeding space people like to lock down and own their varieties, and in coffee that’s layered with all kinds of cultural pieces as well, so there hasn’t been much movement of material. But we’ve been able to navigate that and the network partners have stepped up to share material, as well as work together and use combined efforts for the common good,” she says. The network is designed to be both collaborative and competitive, where individual countries can pick and choose and finish-off their varieties according to what they see as their market advantage, or their specific farmer needs.

“Coffee is consolidating worldwide. You’ve got three top producers in the world and other countries not keeping up, partly because of innovation and access to the right technologies, such as in agronomic practices, and fertiliser technology, even automation. Access to the [right] varietals is critical to increase and maximise production, and for some producing countries, they’ve maxed out what they can achieve with their resources, so there’s a real need to keep the diverse supply of coffee across many more countries other than the top three or four producers,” Humphrey says.

To change this long-standing pattern, WCR is infusing many new resources to give less- equipped producing countries the opportunity to step up.

“We need to develop varieties that are more competitive for these countries and can adapt to new pests and disease pressures, climate change, shifting environments, increased frost events, droughts, and higher temperatures,” Humphrey says.

“If we keep growing the same varieties, you’re not going to get the best performance out of these agricultural systems.”

Many networks, one common goal

Innovea has been about two years in the making, but for the past decade, WCR has laid the groundwork with its partners to build trust and drive science-based agricultural solutions to secure a diverse and sustainable supply of quality coffee.

“We couldn’t have done this coming fresh out of the gate. It’s really been a process of building those relationships, figuring out what the needs are, and how we pull this together,” Humphrey says. Through the Innovea network, WCR will create new, improved breeding populations using modern genomic selection approaches that participating countries can use without restrictions. Depending on the performance of the material, some countries could release new varieties as early as 2033. Most however, will take several more years due to the breeding process lasting anywhere between 10 to 30 years for finished variety development, depending on the breeding approach used. After that, new varieties can be released in a country as often as every three to five years.

To date, two technical workshops of participating countries have already taken place. The first crosses for the network have been completed, with the best commercial varieties from Africa, Asia, and the Americas breeding with the “best of the best” to develop new combinations and new material.

The crossing plan brings together high-priority traits such as yield, disease resistance, and cup quality. These seeds from these original crosses will then be collected and distributed in 2023 to all network partners (national research institutions or delegate bodies) to germinate and plant in individual countries.

Data on plant performance and genetic information will be evaluated over the next few years. WCR will aggregate, analyse, and send the results back to each country to allow them to choose the best material to work with for commercial release.

Multiple improved crosses and cycles are expected to be made every six years at WCR’s Flor Amarilla research farm in El Salvador, and the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education (CATIE) in Costa Rica. “We’re really just starting this journey,” Humphrey says.

The good news is that in the next two decades, multiple countries will have a basket of improved varieties that are more productive and climate resilient, better tasting, and more diverse than all of today’s current varieties.

“If we keep going without action, individual breeders trying to keep up with production for their country are not going to be able to achieve it. They’re not now, and it’s only going to get worse. Brazil, Colombia, and Vietnam are just going to become the world’s coffee producers and we’re not going to be able to compete in all these other diverse origins,” Humphrey says.

WCR CEO Long points to Vietnam as a successful example of a country that was once “completely outside coffee production in the ‘80s to now a dominant economic source”.

“Vietnam is proof that targeted and dedicated investment in technology and its farmers can succeed,” Long says.

WCR’s Flor Amarilla Research Farm in El Salvador, one of 11 sites globally where Innovea plants will be tested.

She notes however, that the trend towards the market’s three dominant producers has been concerning for well over 20 years. The total volume of production and exports in Brazil and Vietnam continue to grow year-on-year. Consolidation is happening. Twenty years ago, 10 countries produced 80 per cent of the world’s coffee, today it’s just seven.

“It’s a trend that’s going to continue. If we don’t provide farmers with better options, the only way to provide enough coffee to meet demand is to either increase land use in the countries that are successful, which has climate consequences, or turn to synthetic alternatives, of which there is a lot of interest as an alternative product in the beverage category,” she says.

Ripe for the taking

Because so little has been done in coffee breeding over the years, Humphrey says playing ‘catchup’ offers enormous potential to make large impacts.

“Other crops that have been breeding for years can only make little incremental changes and gains, but in coffee, we can make huge leaps on some really basic things like yield, disease resistance, coffee leaf rust, and frost, which we can address through breeding, and will then enable farms to increase productivity and remain profitable,” she says.

Breeding can also complement and support creative approaches and targets such as crop architecture, optimisation for automation systems, product differentiation, targeting flavour profiles, and different harvest windows, which Humphrey notes is already fairly routine in other crops.

“None of this has been tackled in coffee. We’re still just trying to get yield up. All that potential is exciting. The whole realm of possibilities is open,” she says.

The greatest challenge from here, is the coordination of the Innovea program and ensuring data quality with the implementation of good traceability systems, data tracking, and storage.

For roasters who want to supply their customers with coffee from diverse coffee origins long-term, their support of Innovea is crucial. This program should appeal to not just large industry players, but small and medium-sized roasters.

“The industry can choose its path. I really believe that if [roasters] don’t invest in this program, they will be selling synthetic [coffee] in 20 years. The 216 companies in 32 countries that are members of WCR have put both feet into this agenda because they want

to continue having a diverse offering in their product line-up. It’s a very efficient investment for the industry to reduce their risk and meet sustainability and business goals,” Long says.

“The stewardship and governance of WCR comes from the companies funding our work. We’re really looking at what the highest leverage investment is that we can offer to help our member companies deliver origin diversity for their consumers. It’s really about that fundamental supply objective. Participation in this work is the kind of radical collaboration and collective investment the industry needs if it wants to have a future.”

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This article was first published in the January/February 2023 edition of Global Coffee Report. To read the research paper, click HERE.

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