Young Esperanza Seedlings (Photo credit: World Coffee Research)
WHY WE CHOSE TO FOCUS ON FUTURE OF THE COFFEE?
Coffee trees are extremely sensitive to the environmental conditions they are placed in. The shifting climactic changes in producing regions are making it progressively more challenging for producers to keep farming the crops upon which their livelihood depends. Changing weather conditions, increased average temperatures, events like extreme droughts and heatwaves, and shifting rainfall patterns.
All these pressures are combined with a crisis in the commodity coffee price to wreak havoc on smallholder farmers across the world. Coffee has long been considered an orphan crop when compared to other agricultural products due to a disparity in available funding, fragmented national efforts and challenges in the timescales required for breeding trials.
For many crops, agricultural research is paid for by the producers themselves (usually through a tax on sales or exports), as well as by seed companies, and (in the US at least) at public land grant universities. The increasing scale of industrial agriculture and the huge profits generated through efficiency of scale has meant that the produce we consume today has been intensively studied and developed. The increasing quality and yield gains generate increased profits, funding more research and continued concentration of wealth in the hands of large agri business. Alongside university breeding programs and local efforts, crops other than coffee have a greater diversity in research and breeding efforts.
Contrasting the average Arabica coffee farm – smallholder farmers in mountainous terrain, often growing coffee as a cash-crop alongside local staples. Coffee research prior to this has been conducted and funded not by the farmers but by national coffee institutes in producing countries, working on improving coffee production within their own country. The result of this disparity in funding and economic power is startling on a scientific level. There are over 2950 registered and recognized varieties of tomato, 2255 varieties of strawberry, yet only 53 registered varieties of coffee [1: PLUTO Plant Variety Database]. There exist somewhere over 100 widely recognized yet not formally registered and researched varieties grown outside Ethiopia. Nearly all share a common ancestor in the Typica or Bourbon variety trees first commercially cultivated in the 1700s. This common lineage to two single varieties places a deep genetic bottleneck on coffee research.
Forecast trends in coffee production against coffee consumption predict that by 2050, demand for coffee will outstrip supply by a considerable margin– to meet demand, worldwide production must increase. [2: WCR - Annual Report 2017].
In short, with demand growing in the face of increasing pressure on producers, there was all the elements of a crisis brewing.
WORLD COFFEE RESEARCH
World Coffee Research was founded in 2012 with the goals of improving coffee quality, improving crop production and helping provide a more sustainable and dignified livelihood for producers. WCR now has research trials in over 27 countries and are making rapid headway in variety cataloguing and development, working collaboratively with local organizations, government institutes, and partner farms.
In doing so, WCR provide a united front from producer, importer, roaster and consumer in confronting the global challenges facing coffee production. One of the most exciting results of the WCR research program is that of the Next Generation F1 hybrid program.
WHAT IS AN F1 HYBRID?
For coffee, an F1 hybrid is created by crossing genetically distinct parent varieties with desirable characteristics. That genetic distinction between the parent plants creates an effect known as heterosis or “Hybrid Vigor” – the offspring plants grow faster, are stronger and more resilient, and have the potential to produce a higher cup quality (sometimes scoring even 90+), and produce higher yields than either parent.
The downside is the difficulty in breeding them. The seed of an F1 hybrid (to plant in the ground and grow up into a new baby plant) is called the F2 generation, but the desired characteristics from the F1 parents are not carried over into the F2 generation uniformly—some of the F2 plants end up looking more like the grandmother, some like the grandfather, and only a few like the parent F1. In addition, hybrid vigor is significantly lessened in subsequent generations.
Once identified promising F1 hybrids must then be propagated (e.g., mass produced) by crossing parents together consistently, or by cloning (taking leaf cuttings from existing plants and placing them in plant growth hormones in a lab), causing the cuttings to grow into seedlings. Both processes are more expensive, and F1 seedlings can cost between 50c to a $1 each, two to three times the cost of a more traditional variety.
This initial cost is often out-weighed by the fact that F1 plants are capable of producing harvests earlier, and that there is less chance of losing harvests due to pest, disease or climate-based issues. By looking to source F1 hybrids as part of our offer, we ensure that there is a market interest in producing and continuing to research these climate change resilient varieties.
THE ESPERANZA F1 & FINCA AQUIARES
We put out the call to our partners in the green coffee industry, and were supplied several samples of promising F1 hybrid lots from the latest harvest in Costa Rica. Thanks to organizations like the CATIE Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center, Costa Rica has been at the forefront of variety development, and was involved in the first large breeding program to create F1 hybrids for coffee. (It is based on the success of this program that WCR has made F1 hybrids the centerpiece of their own breeding program). We selected this red honey processed Esperanza F1 as something we felt best fit into our offer, as it was clean and sweet with articulate flavours. (Crucial to note, whilst the Esperanza is an F1, it was created prior to the formation of WCR.) Other early F1 hybrids such as Centroamericano or Milenio are also beginning to be commercially cultivated with good effect, and we look forward to featuring them in future years. World Coffee Research, in its F1-hybrid-focused breeding program, has 56 experimental F1s in testing now; one of the sites where the varieties are being evaluated is Finca Acquaires. After 7-10 years of observation and selection, the best performers may be released for farmers (around 2025).
Produced by the lovely Robelo family on Finca Aquiares, one of the oldest and largest specialty coffee farms in Costa Rica. The farm is Rainforest Alliance certified and aiming to be carbon neutral, and is run by the current manager Diego Robelo with a great emphasis on sustainability and progressive employment. We’re happy to share the work Finca Aquiares are doing on the forefront of variety research as a partner farm for WCR.
Esperanza was named by Diego, and appropriately translates from Spanish as “Hope” – it is a fitting name for what F1 hybrids potentially offer as we navigate the challenges that will face the future of coffee.