World Coffee Research’s breeding program

For years now, World Coffee Research (WCR) has been pursuing a program to formalise  and catalogue all of the scientific knowledge around coffee. From looking into how changing weather patterns will affect production in different growing regions, to cataloguing the sensory attributes associated with many of the most popular coffee varieties, every one of WCR’s programs is undertaken with the aim to sustain and improve the world’s supply of quality coffee. In November 2015,  WCR planted the seeds, both literally and figuratively, for a program that could do more than any other to fulfil the organisation’s mission, which is to: “To grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it.” The organisation’s latest project is a breeding program that aims to develop two new hybrid varieties best suited to the evolving needs of the coffee industry – in terms of being well adapted to changing environmental conditions while also meeting market expectations in terms of quality. In 2015, WCR held a workshop bringing breeders, agronomists and other key coffee science people from throughout Central America together with their lead breeder to create a design brief that answered the question: “If we were going to create two new varieties for Central America, what should they look like?” According to WCR’s Director of Communications, Hanna Neuschwander, the group started by looking at the challenges facing farmers today and also listed the qualities that the market wants. “They came up with two ideal coffees – one for lower elevations where leaf rust is present and temperatures are a little higher, and another one for higher altitudes where leaf rust is not present and where you’re able to get higher quality, so quality would be much more of a primary focus,” Neuschwander tells Global Coffee Report. Once the brief was designed, the breeders went to the existing varieties that exhibit the individual qualities they were looking for. They then drew upon an earlier project by WCR that had mapped the genetic diversity of more than 800 different varieties of Arabica in order to find breeding partners for those ideal varieties that would provide the greatest level of genetic difference. “One of the main purposes of our genetic diversity research was to try to figure out, of all of the different varieties of Arabica that are out there and available to breeders to use, which of those have the most genetic diversity so that we can inject a little bit of novelty into new hybrids to find traits that will help us improve disease tolerance or quality or whatever we get out of it,” Neuschwander says. Breeding in this way – guaranteeing the genetic distance between both of the hybrid’s parent varieties – also has the added benefit of making the hybrid more productive. “So we look for the qualities that we know we want in the parents and then ensure the genetic diversity component which can lead to some really novel traits coming through, and then you also get this bonus of hybrid vigour, which means better yields,” she says. This is in contrast to how most coffee breeding has been done in the past, Neuschwander tells GCR. “Historically, as an industry, we have just been using the same genetic material over and over and over again,” she says. In order to develop the trial hybrids, WCR took five existing varieties that had those traits that they were looking for and 10 of the plants from their core collection that were genetically distant, and then crossed them to make 50 different hybrids. While it sounds like a very technically involved process, Neuschwander says it was, in actual fact, quaintly simple. “It basically consists of a guy going into a field and taking what looks like a paint brush that collects the pollen from one tree and then he carefully covers that up so that it doesn’t get contaminated and drives down the mountain to the flower of the female tree to paint the pollen on and then from the cherry that is produced, we take the seed out and germinate it and grow it into a little baby plant and that is our hybrid,” she says. All of that happened in November 2015. Now it is time to wait. “We’ve now got to let those plants grow to maturity and evaluate them – which we will use the lexicon and the sensory pipeline to do,” Neuschwander says. The WCR’s lexicon and sensory pipeline have been developed to add precision to the evaluation of coffee varieties in cases exactly like this. Released in 2015, the coffee lexicon is a catalogue of objectively verifiable sensory attributes that can be used to evaluate and describe a coffee’s characteristics. This works in conjunction with the WCR’s Sensory Pipeline, a complete scientific catalogue that captures and records all relevant information about a variety of coffee, from data about its cultivation conditions right through to its sensory attributes. The Sensory Pipeline collects an unprecedented amount of data about each sample of coffee that goes through it, such as the altitude of where it was grown, a map of the volatile compounds it emits as aroma once it has been roasted, and everything in between. “Realistically it will be about seven to 10 years before anything can be released to farmers, but that’s about 20 years quicker than the old ways of making hybrids,” Neuschwander says. While the results in terms of quality and productivity will take some time to become evident, in the meantime WCR will be able to test the leaves of the immature hybrids for things such as disease resistance. “It takes time to evaluate this stuff, but ultimately once those evaluations are underway what they will do is determine which ones really meet those design briefs and take those varieties and work with the national institutes to test them more widely across different environments,” Neuschwander says. “Our best hope for sustaining the supply of high quality coffee in the 21st century is to focus on making the coffee plant more resilient. The creation of new, highly adaptable varieties, supported by a vibrant new seed sector, will result in major global productivity and quality gains in the next 10 to 20 years.” GCR

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