Market Reports

Yemeni coffee’s genetic advantage

While it is widely known as the launching pad for coffee’s global journey some 1400 years ago, scientists now believe the coffee grown in Yemen could help safeguard the plant’s future in the face of climate change. World Coffee Research (WCR) is working with Sana’a University in Yemen to study Yemeni coffee landraces with the support of the American Embassy and the Fulbright Scholarship program. As part of the project, Yemeni coffee professor and breeder Dr Amin Abbo al Hakimi is spending one year at Texas A&M University. He will work with scientists in breeding and genomics to conduct a genetic diversity analysis on the Yemeni coffees that have long attracted  the attention of specialty coffee roasters for their unique taste attributes. Behind these unique flavours lies a source of genetic diversity that has gone unexplored. Approximately 1000 years ago Ethiopian and Yemeni traders brought Arabica coffee from Ethiopia to Yemen where hundreds of years of environmental, genetic and human selection pressures have likely produced different Arabica varieties unique to Yemen. What makes these strains of the Arabica species particularly appealing to WCR is their resilience in the extreme hot and dry climate of Yemen and the possibility that this climate resiliency can be used to help sustain coffee in the face of climate change. Dr Christophe Montagnon, who works with WCR, says Yemen has served as the “screening place between wild Ethiopian and cultivated varieties.” “The Arabica from Yemen is of particular importance as it represents the very place where Arabica was first domesticated out of Ethiopia,” Montagnon says. “The first historical varieties, Bourbon and Typica, did not come directly from Ethiopia, but from Yemen to the Reunion Island and to Asia and then America.” However, it is this particular coffee’s resilience that has attracted the specific interest of WCR. “In Yemen, coffee is cultivated in a semi-arid climate, so it is very interesting to study the physiological and related genetic features that were selected in this very environment. This is, of course, of interest regarding the current concerns about climate change,” he says. Thompson Owen is the owner of specialty coffee house, Sweet Maria’s, in the US. Owen has visited Yemen and says, in addition to its rich history, the country maintains a strong and valuable position in the world coffee scene. Despite the upheaval of a popular revolution as a part of the Arab Spring in 2011, the country still has a thriving trade. “I believe it is a good sign, as our trading partners are part of a Yemeni society that seeks economic cooperation, as they also are importers of appliances into Yemen,” Owen says. “Promoting Yemeni products in the world can only aid in a better understanding of common ground, and respectful difference.” Dr al Hakimi says the understanding and preservation of Yemeni Arabica is essential for the future of the entire coffee industry. “The conservation in-situ of Yemeni landraces of coffee, and documentation of experiences and local knowledge is a necessity,” he says. “Yemen cannot do it alone and requires extensive scientific cooperation to preserve this world heritage of protected cultivation, and for the development of coffee in Yemen and around the world.”

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