World Coffee Research: the future of coffee

World Coffee Research aims to grow, protect and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving livelihoods of producer families.

The livelihoods of coffee farmers and the success of businesses who rely on these farmers to grow great coffee are urgently threatened by factors such as climate change, low yields, diseases and pests, and barriers to quality. This is where World Coffee Research (WCR) comes in.

WCR believes that the coffee plant is the most important technology in the coffee supply chain—the basis for coffee quality and productivity. To enhance farmer livelihoods and ensure coffee’s future, they conduct essential research on the plant and on the conditions that help it thrive. In addition to this, WCR look at the following areas: coffee genetics and breeding, the quality of coffee, the different varieties of coffee, climate change, supporting the profitability of farmers, and coffee diseases and pests.

We speak to CEO Vern Long about the work that WCR do, and the importance behind this.

Can we start with an introduction into the mission of WCR? How is this achieved?

The mission of WCR is quite simple: it’s to grow, protect and enhance the supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it. WCR began with industry support as a precompetitive, global research effort to focus on improving the quality and productivity of coffee and the viability of coffee production for the families that produce it.

Coffee is a crop grown in over 80 countries, most of which are low and middle income countries. No single company or single government can provide the requisite resources to address the many challenges facing coffee producers worldwide. There is a need for a global response from both the public and private sectors to invest in a pre-competitive research agenda. WCR works with the global coffee community to ensure the shared research agenda is relevant and up to date, and then we partner with the public and private sectors to implement that agenda through institutions across the landscape – from advanced international research institutes to scientists and agronomists in coffee producing countries.

There is so much we can accomplish by bringing diverse researchers to the table and helping them focus their expertise on the most important challenges to coffee production. We see complementary and necessary roles for both the public and private sectors to support agricultural necessary to ensure the economic viability of coffee production in multiple geographies. At the same time, in areas of high importance where there is no one else well positioned to do the work, WCR acts not only as a facilitator but also as an implementer of core research programs.

We focus our work on preserving the diversity of origins of coffee production. This is a particular priority for us as we think about managing risk in global supply chains, creating new market opportunities, and making it possible for farmers from diverse locations to produce high-value, differentiated coffees. One of the big challenges we see right now in coffee production globally is low commodity prices. Our work is focused on not only the biophysical constraints to coffee production, such as pathogens, diseases or climate shocks, but it’s also recognising that coffee doesn’t grow itself—the families that grow coffee need and deserve to make a good living from coffee production.

Our work is just as much focused on the agricultural challenges as it is on the economic considerations. For example, profitability is a big challenge for coffee farmers. What are ways you can drive down the cost of production for different types of farms to improve the profitability of that farm while also maintaining quality? In our global network of farmer field trials, we are working to figure out not just what drives productivity up, but what that balances from the farmer’s perspective.

Another avenue for origin diversity preservation is the technology that will drive us forward into the 21st century. Coffee breeding is a major focus of our portfolio. Through regional hubs, we support national coffee institutes to develop new varieties of coffee. We have a full pipeline of materials that are being tested to look at how they fare in variable growing conditions. Can they handle low water or high heat conditions, or both at the same time? Can they maintain the quality that’s required for farmers to capture more value? The breeding programme is focused on both productivity and quality to ensure that new varieties developed are both relevant to farmers but are also something that the industry wants to purchase.

What impact does the work that you do have on a global scale, and what is the importance of this?

Coffee is consumed almost everywhere; it’s one of the most enduringly popular beverages in the world. And it’s produced in more than 80 countries, many of which significantly rely on coffee not only for the income it provides individual citizens, but also for national revenues. Any work you do to address the really significant challenges facing coffee agriculture at a global scale has the potential for tremendous impact.

WCR has active collaborations in 27 countries. We’re focused on coordinating a global research community and bringing together lots of minds to tackle the challenges of 21st century coffee production. Coffee agricultural research has been very fragmented in the past, with a lot of variability in research capacity—some countries have deep capacity in one technical area, but maybe not in all the requisite areas to help their entire coffee sector thrive; some have virtually no capacity.

What we seek to do is to bridge those communities together at regional levels. You can really only do this from a global vantage point, because you have to have that bird’s eye view of what’s worked where. An example of this is that we have an international multi-locational variety trial network; we take varieties from a number of different countries and plant the same suite of 31 varieties in each country that chooses to participate.

This allows both us and the countries to see how varieties from another world region perform in their own country. As a result, this creates immediate knowledge and provides the opportunity to expand the portfolio of varieties that farmers can choose from that perform well in their location. This is a very concrete and immediate kind of feedback loop – the technologies already exist, but we are facilitating bringing them into new locations, new environments.

The data we generate from this multi-location variety trial will provide information in the next year that offers concrete evidence farmers can use to inform their decisions around what varieties they want to access for their farms. Farmers are struggling; they need solutions now, not in 10 years. The bottom line is WCR is supporting the global coffee sector to generate technologies and information to keep farmers in the game, whilst also preserving threatened origins.

When it comes to safeguarding coffee genetic resources, why is this important and how are you helping solve this?

As an organisation with a major focus on coffee breeding, we take conservation of genetic resources very seriously. We rely on these building blocks to develop new coffee varieties.

In coordination with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, in 2017 we launched a global coffee conservation strategy. The strategy identifies the most critical actions that need to be taken in order to conserve the most important genetic resources. This reservoir of diversity is one of our most important sources of opportunity – both for resistance to pests and diseases, and the new flavour profiles that companies are seeking and that farmers want to produce.

We rely on genetic resources to bolster the capacity of our breeding programmes to deliver good products to the farming community.

The other challenges of coffee breeding, particularly for Coffea arabica (one of two species of coffee we consume, and the most prevalent worldwide) is that it’s already working from a very narrow base; the genetic diversity within Arabica is quite small compared to most other crops that are as economically important as coffee. Therefore, tapping into these genetic resources for coffee is especially essential—all the more reason for us to dedicate time and attention to it.

Recently, we were awarded a grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service to convene, jointly with the Crop Trust, a community of germplasm conservation experts to think through an action plan to start implementing the conservation strategy. We’ll be hosting that event in 2020, bringing together the key scientists from the origin collections where a lot of this diversity is being stored right now—in less than optimal conditions—as well as other experts to ensure that we have a detailed action plan to get the most important work started.

What would be some of the main obstacles you face in terms of trying to combat some of the risks such as climate change and low yields, and how are these overcome?

R&D is essential to addressing the main obstacles for coffee agriculture. Agronomy and breeding research are the main tools we use to address these challenges. It’s not just the negatives or the risks on the downside that we explore, but also the opportunities that are on the horizon. For example, targeting new flavour profiles and integrating quality assessments in breeding programmes in ways that weren’t possible 30 or even 10 years ago.

One of the biggest challenges facing coffee research is that it is a tree crop; it takes a long time to grow a tree. When we think about what’s required to mobilise a vibrant coffee research agenda, the timelines are really sobering. For instance, to grow trees for our multi-location variety trial, those were put in the ground starting in 2014. We are now at the five year mark, and it’s only going to be in the next year that we will generate the data that will help farmers know which varieties will work in their country.

That’s all the more reason why we need to tackle the challenges to coffee with a broad global community of scientists, because on the other end there are many technical feats of scientific discovery that are accelerating progress. We want to look to the innovations from other crops (such as citrus or almond breeding) and find out what can we learn from them. That’s one of the things that I’m thinking about over the next five years: how we can bring in those tools and technologies to speed up progress. We just can’t depend on planting a seed and sitting around and waiting five years for it to grow. We need to accelerate where we can.

In five years’ time, what do you hope WCR will have achieved, and where would you like the future of coffee to be?

I just started this position in June, and I get to take advantage of the fact that the organisation has been around for seven years when all of these trials started. Over the next one to two years we’re going to be generating tremendous volumes of information that are actionable. For instance, with the multi-location variety trial, these programmes are primed and ready to go; the data that are coming out of them in the next couple of years will provide concrete evidence to farmers about new opportunities, such as how varieties that already existed somewhere else in the world perform in their country.

Within the next five years, we will see the consolidation of best agricultural practices. We have around 150 farmer field trials in a number of origin countries at the moment. It’s our Global Coffee Monitoring Programme; this programme is generating very concrete practical information in farmers’ fields about which varieties and which agronomic approaches (e.g. how you space the plants or how you weed them) perform well. It gives tremendous data on the different kinds of interventions that can improve profitability. A robust set of best agricultural practices that are concrete roadmaps for farmers to think about what works best in their production environment.

In addition, we also have regional breeding hubs that bring together country breeders to work together and develop new varieties. At the moment we are arriving at the point where we’re getting a full pipeline; we have varieties that are about to be released, but we also have new materials and ideas coming into the pipeline. Over the next five years we’ll be seeing those new varieties being tested in farmer’s fields and ultimately released from national programmes.

The idea is that very soon, we’ll have a fully functioning pipeline, producing new innovations and technologies continuously, year on year, but in a systematic and coordinated way at a regional level. It’s a really exciting time for coffee because you’re going to start seeing the proof in the pudding – the actual outputs, varieties, technology and best practice guidance that will help farmers be profitable and ultimately deliver a fabulous cup of coffee.

Vern Long
World Coffee Research
Tweet @WCoffeeResearch

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