LONDON — A cadre of scientists representing coffee-producing countries throughout the world recently gathered in London for a technical meeting on initial efforts to be conducted under the banner of World Coffee Research.
World Coffee Research is funded by the global coffee industry, guided by producers and implemented by coffee scientists around the world, said the program’s administrators. It is managed by the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture based in College Station, part of the Texas A&M University System.
“This marks the first time coffee researchers from a variety of origin countries have agreed to collaborate on a series of projects to evaluate the world’s elite Arabica material in different environments,” said Dr. Tim Schilling, World Coffee Research program executive director and a research scientist with the Borlaug Institute.
Schilling said during their meeting in London, scientists comprising the Technical Advisory Committee for the program also began plans for a global program to collect, catalog, and preserve coffee varieties from around the world.
“The WCR International Multi-location Variety Trial Project is the platform by which our partners around the globe will test and evaluate a wide range of Arabica varieties,” he said.
Schilling explained that a major aspect of global coffee research will be the testing of coffee varieties in myriad environments, including those environments with diseases, insects, fluctuating temperatures or other significant events.
“The scientists can then evaluate and collect data on how these varieties perform in different situations,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to identify and naturally improve Arabica coffees with high quality and high productivity attributes that will be attractive to the consumer and also improve the income of coffee farmers throughout the world, many of whom are now living at a subsistence level.”
Schilling said many crops, such as maize, wheat and soybeans, have been bred and naturally improved to be tolerant to new pests, diseases and drought. And, for decades, agronomists and plant breeders have successfully used the multi-location variety trial method in breeding programs to make rapid gains in plant productivity for most of the crops upon which humans depend.
“In fact, Dr. Norman Borlaug for whom the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture is named, used a similar method to breed the improved wheat variety that was credited with possibly saving billions of lives in food insecure countries,” he said.
With a changing global climate, the threat of drought, pests and diseases increases for all crops, including coffee, Schilling said. As a result, the need for research and breeding programs to maintain high quality and productivity also increases.”
“Most coffee-producing countries have their own research institutions that conduct coffee breeding programs funded by the public sector,” explained Technical Advisory Committee chairman Dr. Vincent Petiard. “However, the real problem is that most of these research institutions have been using the same basic genetic material for more than 50 years.”
Petiard said in the 1950s, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations distributed Ethiopian coffee trees to producing countries around the world. Since then, these countries have been crossing this material on their own looking for better combinations but without introducing new coffee varieties from the wild.
Petiard said the committee’s scientists plan to distribute 30 coffee varieties from around the world and 60 advanced lines to each of the 15 partner institutions of World Coffee Research to test in several diverse locations within each country next to their local genetic materials. Data will be gathered on productivity and quality based on altitude, climatic conditions, pest and disease tolerance, and a variety of other factors affecting coffee characteristics.
“The data that we collect as part of the IMVT Project will allow us to look at varieties better able to adapt to climate change, for example,” Schilling said. “Then we will be able to investigate what traits make those varieties more resilient under those specific conditions and utilize that information in breeding programs to select for those traits and attributes in improved varieties.”
Johanna Roman of the Borlaug Institute, who serves as program coordinator for World Coffee Research, said partnering research institutions will begin selecting trial sites soon and that the advisory committee expects propagation material exchange to initiate this year, with some field trials to be initiated by 2013.
Roman added that the scientists also have begun plans for the Coffee Germplasm Conservation and Use Project for Arabica genetic resource gathering and cataloging, as well as to maintain the genetic variability of a population.
“Coffee germplasm ‘libraries’ exist in many origin countries,” Schilling said, “but existing collections are very limited and lack genetic diversity. The genetic variability found in current germplasm collections only represents about 10 percent of the total variability that can be found in the wild Arabica populations existing in nature. There is so much genetic potential in coffee that is yet to be discovered and utilized for the benefit of the industry and producers.”
Schilling said he was encouraged by the level of enthusiasm and participation that the countries showed at the meeting in London.
“Member countries were keen to contribute their genetic material and in return receive other materials, he said. “Countries of origin tend to see their local varieties as a competitive advantage, so sharing of genetic material for scientific purposes is not very common in the coffee sector. But all that is changing now. We’re entering a new era in coffee research.”
He said research institutions will be able to take the varieties they develop and put them in the hands of farmers.
“Within five or 10 years, we should see some great quality and production increases as a direct result of this program,” Schilling said. “The difficult part is not the science, but to get the full support of the local authorities where it is needed. World Coffee Research and member scientists are looking forward to engaging local governments and ministries of agriculture of each country to successfully conduct these programs.”
World Coffee Research: the 501 (c)(5) non-profit, collaborative research and development program of the global coffee industry whose goal is to grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it. Visit http://WorldCoffeeResearch.org for more information.
Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture: The global outreach unit of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Texas A&M University, Texas AgriLife Research, and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. The mission of the Borlaug Institute is to prepare and support faculty members, firms, communities, and students in Texas and abroad for engagement and leadership in international agriculture in ways that promote service, entrepreneurship, environmental stewardship, and mutual respect among peoples in an increasingly interdependent world. Visit http://borlaug.tamu.edu for more information.