World Coffee Research’s seed verification program

When World Coffee Research (WCR) announced its Verified Program with Global Coffee Report last year, it was merely in the development stage. But since then, the global coffee research and development nonprofit has made great strides toward the industry’s very first verification program for coffee seed producers and nurseries. WCR began work on the program in 2015, but after solidifying plans with third-party certification organisation NSF International earlier this year, WCR officially launched the program in September. “In the very beginning we didn’t know what the scope was going to be – we just knew it was a good idea,” says WCR Communications Director Hanna Neuschwander, citing the widespread neglect and lack of organisation in the global coffee sector, particularly in seeds. The disorganisation she speaks of can mean the end for the smallholder coffee farmers who make up the global industry. What’s more, the repercussions flow down the supply chain. “If the farmers aren’t getting the seeds they think they’re getting, then it compromises the entire supply chain,” she tells Global Coffee Report. “[For instance] it’s very possible the trees they produce aren’t actually disease resistant.” For a farmer in a pest-prone region, especially with the greater incidence of pests due to global warming, this can mean years wasted while the seeds grow into mature fruit-bearing plants and then lost income when the plants don’t produce berries because they weren’t disease resistant after all. Unknowingly buying the wrong seeds or plants, which Neuschwander says can be due to a simple mistake or even fraud, is especially detrimental in farm renovation efforts. As advancements are being made in breeding to identify and create varieties that are resistant to pests, frost and more, farmers are renovating entire coffee farms. That’s why it’s essential for farmers to be buying their thousands of new plants from a verified nursery, she stresses, and ultimately why a verification program like this needs established. WCR and NSF have been working diligently to inform coffee producers, governments, NGOs and industry associations about the benefits of seed producer certification. Adds NSF International’s Europe, Middle East and Africa Network Director Stephen Cox, “purchasing certified Coffea arabica varieties will provide these farmers with a viable and sustainable option to manage their 20-year investment in replanting coffee trees”. A certification like no other
What sets this verification program apart from others in both the coffee industry and in the wider agricultural industry is the link in the supply chain at which this certification takes place. “Most certifications happen at the farm level,” explains Neuschwander, referencing programs such as organic, fair trade and farm practices. “The WCR Verified Program is actually certifying the step before the farm.” With NSF as the certification and auditing body, coffee seed producers and nurseries will be measured against four criteria: plant health standards, genetic purity, buyer education and breeders’ rights. Of those, the two core components where most of the auditing efforts will be directed are plant health, which ensures the seed producer or nursery follows best practices for healthy products, and genetic purity, which guarantees buyers are receiving the intended varieties. “While there are some systems in place to ensure good practices, there aren’t any that implement the genetic component,” says Neuschwander. “Because of that, we knew from the beginning that DNA fingerprinting was going to be a critical component.” Regarding breeders’ rights, a nursery or another breeder that may want to sell or breed a particular variety must first confirm if it is linked to a breeder and then obtain permission from the breeder to use it. Obtaining permission doesn’t necessarily involve monetary exchanges, but this step in the verification program simply ensures breeders are consulted. And regarding the farmer education component, seed farmers or plant nurseries must provide their buyers information about the different agronomic traits. This step is the simpler of the four, and integrates nicely with WCR’s extensive Coffea arabica varieties catalogue. Although the catalogue and the verification program remain two separate initiatives, the catalogue is an easy way for seed farmers and nurseries to share information with their buyers. With support from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Regional Cooperative Program for the Technological Development and Modernization of Coffee Cultivation (PROMECAFE), WCR has been building the catalogue since the nonprofit’s inception in 2012. The catalogue collates essential information on 38 major cultivars from throughout Central America, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. It will expand to Africa in 2018 and globally in the years following. An approved partnership
Because no certification program for coffee seeds existed until now, this is a new undertaking for both parties and “an important entry point into the global coffee sector”, for NSF International, says Cox. As a global health and safety organisation that develops standards and protocols and conducts certification testing for a variety of agricultural and food-related programs, the US-based organisation can now add coffee seeds to its portfolio. “NSF has a long history of providing technical expertise and accredited food services across all supply chain sectors [and] extensive experience in agriculture, certifying more than 60,000 farms annually as an accredited organisation for major land-based global certification programs,” he tells GCR, “so entering the coffee sector is a natural extension.” Before engaging WCR last year, NSF was in talks with another certification organisation about developing a third-party verification program for coffee hybrids. In those conversations NSF learned that WCR was piloting a program, and so they proposed a partnership. Fortunately WCR was in the market for a partner. Says Neuschwander: “We realised very quickly that we needed a certification process expert, as well as an independent third party to ensure trust in the system – someone without skin in the game.” In addition to NSF’s reputation as a capable certifier, the global entity has offices in many of the regions where WCR hopes to work. “Equally important is that they were really interested in an initiative like this,” adds Neuschwander. “They, too, believe there is potential to build a strong, reliable seed sector.” From NSF’s side, “WCR’s mission and [organisational] strategy match well with our values of demonstrating social and environmental responsibility,” says Cox. “The WCR Verified Program aligns with NSF’s experience in design and promotion of quality systems and enables us to remain at the forefront of new industry developments.” Audits and certification for coffee seed producers and nurseries commenced in Central America in September. WCR plans to expand to regions in Mexico and South America in the beginning of 2018, and eventually worldwide. Seed producers or nurseries in Central America that are interested in becoming certified can apply and get started immediately. Those in other continents will have to wait but are encouraged to apply so WCR can gauge interest from producing countries.
Says Neuschwander, “the goal is that this becomes the global standard and an expectation for coffee buyers”. GCR

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