World Coffee Research to introduce its first lot of coffee varieties

For the past three years, Timothy Schilling, Executive Director of World Coffee Research (WCR), has been pretty eager to get a project in the mail. Since the initial announcement of the International Multi-Location Variety Trial, Schilling and the team at WCR have been working hard at nutting out the complexities involved to get it off the ground. As of August this year, Schilling’s wait is finally over. The first shipment of coffee plantlets will be sent out to 19 coffee producing countries by the end of the year, and to a total of 26 countries by 2015. This achievement marks a milestone in the coordination of coffee research efforts around the globe. Modern history has seen individual producing countries successfully carry out the development of coffee varieties that are resistant to diseases, high yielding, and that taste great. However, without international coordination of scientific efforts, access to these varieties has been largely limited. By sending the same group of plants to all these locations, each country will be able to evaluate new varieties on their own land. It will also serve as a platform to monitor disease movement, and how major varieties are affected by environmental interactions and climate trends. “What we’re setting up is a constant monitoring system. It’s like we’ll have our finger on the pulse of the world of coffee production,” says Schilling. “If a new disease arises in a country, our trial will pick it up, and we’ll be able to see how all of the varieties react to the disease in different environmental conditions.” This major step in the advancement of WCR’s efforts was no easy feat. Schilling explains how they experienced challenges in collecting and sending the varieties out on many levels. The first was the biological challenge. When dealing with a living organism, changes in the lifecycle of coffee seeds make it necessary to stick to a timeframe. Usually, coffee seeds only have a six to nine-month window to get into the ground. The delay from transportation and quarantine make it difficult to get those seeds out within this limited timeframe. Schilling explains that it was next to impossible to collect all the varieties and then send them out to each country as a package, so that they could be compared on a single timeline. Another option was to germinate the plants in the United States and send them out in test tubes. This, Schilling explains, would have caused a virtual brick wall in trying to get them into producing countries. “If we’re sending these out, then what we’re sending is live plants,” says Schilling. “Producing countries are very reluctant to take in any coffee plants, and run the risk of importing diseases.” The solution came in the form of something called an embryo rescue technique. This is where a technician uses a scalpel to cut the embryo out of the seed. The embryo is then transferred into a petri dish, where it grows into little plantlets. It’s those little plantlets that are now being shipped around the world. Because diseases aren’t carried in the embryo, the result is safe to transport. “What the country is getting now is completely sterile,” explains Schilling. “Countries can be more relaxed in their photosanitary procedures.” WCR’s Technical Committee and Board of Directors made the decision on which countries they would approach to work with on the trials, and receive the plantlets. The final list includes major coffee producing countries including Brazil, Kenya, and Colombia – as Schilling says, “the usual suspects”. Some surprising smaller players like Papua New Guinea and the Congo also made the list. “We wanted countries that represented diversity in their coffee environments,” explains Schilling. “We wanted to ensure we captured the maximum variability in climate and geography.” A few countries were selected as part of WCR’s work to deal with the effects of climate change. Using a climate prediction model developed by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (known as CIAT), they selected countries that currently have climate situations coffee producing countries might be seeing in decades to come. “With the varieties in these locations, we’ll be able to see how some of these coffee strains will be coping with climate in 30 years time,” says Schilling. In each location, a full-time technician funded by WCR will be responsible for overseeing the climatisation of the plantlets, their planting, and the recording of their performance. WCR has standardised data collection across the countries – as much as possible – to allow for a fair evaluation of how each variety performs in different climates/geographies. Each plot will also have a weather station to provide accurate weather data. While it will be at least three years until the plants produce coffee, WCR is already looking to when it will be time to evaluate the taste characteristics of these coffees. Leo Lombardini is the new Deputy Director of WCR. He says that while cupping practices have come a long way in providing a good measure of taste profiles, they are dependant on the senses of the cuppers. Because of this, cupping results don’t work well in scientific studies. In this space, WCR is working on a scientific evaluation of taste profiles that will help them provide publishable results on the taste characteristics of the coffee produced. WCR is currently working with Doctors Edward and Delores Chambers from the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University. The centre has a long history of working with the food industry to development scientific sensory evaluations. The pair will now work on the first scientific protocol for the evaluation of coffee tastes, with the goal to produce results that can be published in an academic journal next year. Their work will be paired with a chemical analysis of the aromas using gas chromatography, the analysis of vaporised compounds, which will be done by Doctors Rhonda Miller and Chris Kerth at Texas A&M University. They use what Lombardini describes as a “human nose” attachment, to analyse only the relevant aromas that can be picked up by human senses. Interestingly, the project will not evaluate traditional cupped coffee, but will look at prepared drip and espresso drinks. Combining a sensory analysis and a chemical analysis, the final result will be a set of scientific tools that can be used on an ongoing basis in coffee research. With results set to come out next year, the tool should be well in place when the Multi-Location Variety Trials start bearing fruit. The tool will be used to compare the quality across locations. Plans are to ship all of the coffee to the US, where this scientific tool will be used alongside more traditional cupping methods. This will be the final step of a project that will give producing countries comprehensive information they can use to choose varieties for their farmers. “They will be able to see how this hybrid or strain performs against their traditional varieties,” says Schilling. “They should be able to then select and request authorisation, which might come at a cost, to replicate and distribute the variety.”  All of this work naturally comes at a high cost. In general, Schilling says coffee roasters have responded well to the need for these research efforts. WCR has secured ongoing funding of around US$2.5 million a year, mainly from large roasting companies. “These companies are realising that with all this talk about climate change, they need to be part of something will help them sustain a supply of high quality coffee,” he says. “There are those companies who get it, and those that don’t. In the end, everyone is going to reap the benefits of this.” 

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