World Coffee Research plants seeds of change to address coffee’s hidden crisis

World Coffee Research

World Coffee Research has brought attention to coffee’s hidden crisis in the seed sector and is now examining how to bolster its professionalism and genetic purity.

‘Seed to cup’ is a common expression in the coffee industry, usually covering from when the tree is planted or the cherry is picked right up until the coffee is brewed and drunk. But coffee doesn’t begin with the tree, it starts with the seed.

According to World Coffee Research (WCR), the seed sector is an often forgotten, ignored, or misunderstood part of the coffee industry, but one that plays a crucial role.

“Putting new plants in the ground is one of the biggest investments a coffee grower can make. If they make a mistake at that moment, they’ll be feeling the effects for the next 30 years,” says Emilia Umaña Acosta, Nursery Development Program Manager at WCR. “In many cases, because there’s also difficulty accessing credit in many coffee producing countries, growers have to cut corners to afford to put new plants in the ground.”

“What used to happen was people not renovating their plantations and putting it off longer than they should. Due to climate change affecting their farms over the last few years, growers can’t play that card anymore. So, the circumstances are forcing them to renovate, but without credit, they look for the cheapest option instead of the variety that best suits their needs.”

When it comes to planting new coffee trees, Umaña says most producers either collect seeds from their own fields or those of their neighbour’s, buy seedlings from professional nurseries, or collect free seedlings handed out by government initiatives.

However, in each situation, WCR has discovered issues with the genetic purity and traceability of seeds and seedlings.

“If they’re taking seeds from their own plantations, they’ll go into the field, select a plant that looks vigorous and beautiful, take a seed from that plant, and think those genetics will transfer to seedlings in the nursery, but that doesn’t necessarily happen,” Umaña says.

“Coffee cross pollinates, even if it’s a small percentage compared to other crops. So when a grower takes seeds from their own farm, there’s uncertainty of the genetics of that plant, which could be contaminated with other varieties.”

Even when it comes to professional nurseries, which often operate on a small or local scale, WCR found that plants are rarely better than what a farmer could grow themselves. 

Kraig Kraft, Asia and Africa Director at WCR, says too often, enough thought is not put into the long-term viability of seeds and plants that are given to farmers.

“Governments invest a lot of money into giving plants to farmers, yet, if you don’t pay enough attention to what they’re giving them, there will be knock on effects further down the road,” Kraft says.

“For example, if a plant is too old or large for the container it was planted in, the roots will bend and curve back up, limiting  the plant’s ability to fully express later on in life. The farmer won’t realise this until six months later when the plant isn’t growing  like the others.”

He adds this becomes even more insidious when plants are assumed to have resistances to diseases like coffee leaf rust.

“Given the recent epidemic in Central America, a real emphasis has been put on planting resistant varieties. If farmers are consciously making an effort to plant a rust resistant variety as part of their risk mitigation strategy, they want assurances that what they’re purchasing is what they think it is,” Kraft says.

“Our aim is to find ways we can improve parts of the process so that farmers get better access to higher quality plants. That could mean helping nurseries using better practices to maintain genetic purity or grow plants at their physical optimum, looking at where they’re sourcing seeds, or providing access to better technology and resources.”

In East Africa, WCR has begun countrywide assessments of Arabica seed and nursey sectors, particularly in Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia. While Uganda and Kenya’s coffee industries have smaller footprints, Kraft says an assessment of a country with a crop as large as Ethiopia’s is a huge undertaking. But this research will provide WCR and its national partners with a broad understanding of nursery operations within each country, their current practices, and where interventions and improvements need to be made.

“For all the innovation that comes through breeding, for example, access is often the bottleneck to this technology. It does farmers no good if there is a new rust or climate resistant variety, but they have no access to this,” Kraft says.

“I see our work in nursery development as a natural evolution of our work at WCR when it comes to breeding hybrids and the launch of the Arabica Variety Catalogue. That work has provided producers with more information about the varieties that exist and choices of what they can plant in the ground, now we need to ensure those options are available to them.”

WCR rolled out its Nursery Development Program in 2018 to help build the capacity of small entrepreneurial and cooperative nurseries to produce adequate volumes of genetically pure and healthy seedlings to small farms and farmers. 

WCR began by developing two new manuals of best practices for coffee seed producers and nursery managers, which were released in both English and Spanish 2019. In 2021, they are also being translated into French and Swahili. These manuals can be used to train nursery staff onsite to produce genetically pure and healthy seedlings, good business practices, as well as training other staff for a lasting impact.

In 2019, WCR also joined the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-funded and Technoserve-led Maximizing Opportunities in Coffee and Cacao in the Americas (MOCCA) initiative. This enabled WCR to expand its seed sector work in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru. 

Salvador Urrutia Loucel, WCR Latin American Director, tells Global Coffee Report the work with MOCCA is allowing WCR to improve the seed and nursery sector on two fronts.

“One is the traceability of the material they use. You need to know if the person who produced these plants used good practices during the nine months the plant is still in nursery, from the soil and nutrition to irrigation and even the grafting they use,” Urrutia says.

“The other is to establish policies in each country that can involve the private and public sectors. Nurseries and seed lots are hugely important when the countries want to establish renovation programs or options for farmers, especially smallholders. We need to help them put their own procedures in place to make sure they are using the planting material they need.”

Urrutia says these five focus countries share a lack of strong regulation of seed systems and have challenges reaching farmers with technical assistance to support the distribution and use of genetically pure seeds. The training and professionalising of seed suppliers is critical for expanding access to pure, high-quality, and healthy seeds and plants. 

“In maize, for example, there are a lot of rules around producing certified seeds, so why don’t we have the same in coffee?” Urrutia asks.

“This has meant first assessing what the good practices are in the production of these plants, comparing that to what actually happens in the nursery, and finding what they need to improve.”

Beyond professionalism, a hurdle for seed producers is the cost of verifying the genetic purity of their seeds, pushing the service out of reach for many suppliers and nurseries. Urrutia says this creates situations where nurseries don’t know what varieties they’re selling and farmers don’t know what they’re buying.

“The sustainability of the industry is facing more challenges than it has in the past. The average temperature is about two degrees higher in certain regions, and farms at some altitudes are dealing with pests and problems they didn’t experience one or five years ago,” Urrutia says.

“It’s important for farmers to know when they’re buying plants, they’re the varieties they think they are, have been grown using good practices, and have real genetic resistances to the challenges of the place where they produce.”

To that end, WCR has collaborated with scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service to adapt modern DNA testing approaches for coffee varieties, using single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) to enable rapid, accurate, and less expensive genetic verification. Umaña says SNP is a much cheaper, easier, and more accessible than previous forms of genetic testing.

“With SNP markers, a technology used in many other crops, we can take leaf samples from the field, and run them through DNA analysis which will tell us if the sample matches the variety it should be,” she says.

If it doesn’t, it gives us an idea of the other varieties it’s contaminated with. This is super useful for growers who are looking for a specific variety, with a higher cup quality or disease resistance, and make adjustments before it’s too late.”

Through MOCCA, WCR identified 62 seed lots in the five focus countries in 2020 and began working with them to check the genetic purity of their seeds. Starting at the seed lots allows the research organisation to follow seeds down the supply chain, next training nurseries in how to maintain the traceability and quality of the material. Once the seeds are delivered to farmers, WCR and TechnoServe can educate them on the importance of high-quality and genetically verified coffee trees.

“We’re hoping to expand the SNP technology into many different countries, including in East Africa in the upcoming months. We will also start working with governments and national coffee institutions to support decisions in the process of creating policies,” Umaña says.

“We’re not coming into the country and telling them what to do, instead we’re trying to act as a catalyst – supporting initiatives, keeping this conversation going, and creating awareness about why these issues in the seed sector need to be addressed.”

Urrutia says WCR’s Nursery Development Program will not reshape the seed sector overnight, but with industry involvement increasing, it could contribute to the long-term viability and quality of coffee production.

“In the past, seed producers, coffee farmers, and the wider industry may be focused on volume over quality. Now, I see us entering a new age of coffee, with more attention on quality, resilience to climate change, and tolerances to diseases like leaf rust,” Urrutia says.

“But the planets are aligning and most people recognise we need to act quickly and create new ways of doing things.”

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This article appeared in the July/August 2021 edition of Global Coffee Report, read more HERE

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