Coffee Production Under Pressure – Part 2 - Science Tackles Coffee's Future
In our last blog, we discussed the fragile state of coffee production. This pressure on coffee production is primarily driven by the effects of climate change. Unchecked, the implications are going to be quite severe. Coffee growers, 75% who are small farmers in developing countries, will go out of business. In fact, whole country economies might fail. Coffee prices will soar.
“We’re going to have less coffee, higher prices and coffee that is less differentiated in taste and lower on the quality scale,” says Dr. Tim Schilling, World Coffee Research’s founder and the newly appointed head of WCR Europe. “If everybody is okay with the fact that we are going to be paying $10 to $15 a cup for crappy coffee in thirty years, that’s fine.”
But there’s hope. It comes in the form of a lab-grown variety of coffee called the F1 hybrid.
The concept of the F1 hybrid isn’t new. It was conceived in the late 1990s, and the first varieties were planted in the early 2000s, albeit with less-advanced methodologies and scientific instruments. Today, WCR is able to identify specific strings of genetic and molecular code that indicate disease resistance, crop yield, high cup quality and more, helping them to select the best two parents with the most biologically diverse DNA set. The result is the modern F1, which grows faster, bears fruit a year earlier and is less susceptible to disease.
But hybrid breeding isn’t easy, or cheap. The coffeea plant is a self-pollenizer, meaning it has both male and female reproductive organs. Every seedling offspring is inbred, which precludes them from being true F1 hybrids. “They carry recessive and dominant traits from past generations,” says Lucile Toniutti, a molecular coffee breeder with WCR “this dulls the strengths of the F1.”
For now, the only way to produce F1s is through cloning and in vitro fertilization. Both methods are expensive to perform, which means the plants demand a high price. According to George Howell, a longtime flag bearer for small coffee farmers, the math doesn’t add up.
“The cost is multiple times higher than just taking a usual seed to plant,” Howell says. “From a farmer’s perspective, that expense is too high to justify. The question becomes, can it be made affordable, and is it going to be one of those monopolistic things where we’re always paying a fortune for it?”
So what happens if people like Toniutti can’t crack the code? Hannah Neuschwander, Toniutti’s colleague at the WCR, suggests looking to El Salvador, which as recently as 2012 was among the brightest and most well-supported coffee origins in the world. Then political turmoil, gang violence, drought and an outbreak of rust leaf struck the country in quick succession; today, El Salvador produces 70 percent less coffee.
“That’s the risk if we can’t get these hybrids out,” Neuschwander says. “Origins will start dropping like flies, and the wealth of producing nations will vanish.”
In the meantime, we can support the coffee farmers and the environment by purchasing coffees that are ethically sourced.
Check our blog regularly for news on all things coffee.
Excerpts taken from Gear Patrol