Genetics – coffee’s saviour?

Coffee. Black coffee.

Could there really be anything more natural? Lacking additives, chemicals or other compounds, save for those perhaps used in managing pests and/or disease when growing crops on the many farms around the world.

A seed grown; a crop harvested; the fruit processed; the ‘bean’ roasted; the coffee brewed. Ground coffee and hot water. The extent of any additions? Perhaps milk in espresso based drinks.

Much of the green coffee I buy is organic – some certified, some not. I am generally happy in the quality, traceability and again, for want of a better word, “purity” of the coffee I buy, roast and brew.

Science typically plays a significant role in large-scale agriculture, and the idyllic view (or misconception) of the small-scale coffee farmer producing the crop for my humble brew perhaps requires re-thinking.

Saving Coffee, an article published in the October 2014 edition of Scientific American (paywall), either carries a sensationalistic title, or perhaps is legitimate cause for concern:

Scientists are now hurrying to introduce helpful new genes into the crop through crossbreeding methods. They are mining gene banks and wild plants for as wide a variety of genes as they can find to fortify the crop against looming trouble.

What exactly is the hurry? Why are men in white coats scurrying about the lab to save coffee from impending doom?

Saving coffee?

Firstly, the above article, upon which this post is based, is but one viewpoint on some of the issues facing the future of coffee. It is, however, worth highlighting for anyone with more than a passing interest in the industry.

Further, it is not my intention here to debate the merits of organic and non-organic farming, nor, more specifically related to the topic at hand, the benefit or evil that may exist within genetic modification techniques in agriculture.

My interest in this type of article runs more towards gaining a better understanding of the coffee industry as a whole, beyond simply which beans I buy, roast and consume next. Also, reading about the next unique brewer, or the coolest new cafe or roastery in town does interest me, however these are merely the superficial facade of something that runs much deeper, and affects the livelihoods of many people far less fortunate than you or me.

The subject article by Hillary Rosner outlines four main threats to the coffee plant, and therefore the industry itself:

  • Disease (for example the recent coffee rust or roya epidemic in Central America)
  • Insects (the coffee cherry borer, whose range is now increasing due to climate change)
  • Deforestation (mainly affecting wild coffee trees and is reducing the possible genetic diversity which may be critical to fortify cultivated crops)
  • Climate change (both excessive rainfall in some regions and drought in others affecting global yield)

Coffee’s susceptibility

Although the impression of the coffee industry is often one of robust invincibility, those coffee producing countries through the “bean belt” which exists around the world between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, appear very much in the grip of an “eggs in one basket” susceptibility.

As Scientific American describes:

Coffee crops around the world are incredibly alike genetically. This homogeneity leaves cultivated coffee particularly susceptible to threats from diseases, pests, and shifts in temperature and rainfall.

It is this lack of genetic diversity which poses the greatest threat to the coffee industry. With almost all of the world’s cultivated coffee originating from a small number of plants in the birthplace of coffee – Ethiopia, there is an inherent lack of resilience in many of the crops grown around the world to disease and/or climate inconsistency or progressive change.

Learning more about diversity comes through genetic research, however identifying strains currently known, will of course do nothing to improve the diversity which will ultimate be coffee’s saviour. Unfortunately, where the real diversity exists – in the wild, up to 70% of plants are already endangered, mostly due to clearing of forests.

Time it would seem, is of the essence.

The way forward

Clearly, there is much to be done to ensure coffee’s long term future. Should the situation worsen, it may significantly influence not only the price of a cup for the average customer, but the very existence of some of our favourite single origin coffees.

Will the increased involvement of science in any way impact on what myself and many others consider to be so “natural”? Perhaps. Though when looked at objectively, it appears to be a necessity for at least the health of, if not the very survival, of such an important industry.

Whether or not researchers are able to harness the diversity they are seeking, and “develop a plant that has the flavor of C. arabica and the temperament and yield of C. canephora” (robusta) remains to be seen. Whether they will be able to overcome other barriers, such as the Ethiopian government’s refusal to grant access to a large collection of unique coffee plants, or the fact that coffee seeds cannot survive to be studied, rather, must either be grown or cryopreserved.

We should therefore be thankful for organisations leading the charge in this research, for example those at World Coffee Research, and the agricultural university CATIE in Costa Rica, with it’s 10,000 strong arabica plantation providing a “living gene bank” for use in research.

Final thoughts

Genetic modification of crops for human consumption can be a very emotional topic, and one I have traditionally observed from a passive standpoint. Although that is unlikely to change, perhaps when the crop involved is one I am quite passionate about, I should take a little more notice – and most likely will.

The final word should belong to Ric Rhineheart, executive director of the Speciality Coffee Association of America, as quoted in the article:

If we don’t start today, every day that we wait is more time. And we could be facing an existential threat.

Also on scientificamerican.com:
Coffee Crisis Spurs Hunt for Helpful Genes (Slide Show)

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