By Hanna Neuschwander, World Coffee Research
Sometimes facts are so obvious they become invisible.
In the case of coffee, one of those facts is this: Coffee comes from a plant. The entire $225 billion dollar coffee industry in the U.S. is built up from the roots of billions of living, breathing coffee plants that spend their days turning sunlight into fruit. Once you stop and think about it, it’s kind of profound. Nearly 1.7 million jobs — including, if you are reading this, probably yours — depend on those plants doing their thing, photosynthesizing, outsmarting diseases and pests, being rained on at the right time in the right amounts.
It’s also profound to think about just how fragile the entire arrangement is. The vast majority of coffee plants in the field today are really, really (really) genetically similar. Most varieties are not resistant to major diseases. Most are way too old (World Coffee Research guesses that about 50% of coffee trees are more than 50 years old). That leaves coffee especially vulnerable — to disease epidemics like the one that devastated Central American production after 2012, to extremes in weather like excessive rain or drought or frost.
When crops are facing challenges like these, it helps to go back to basics: Coffee is a plant. So — what is needed to help the plant thrive? And, thereby, to help the humans who depend on it?
The first thing coffee sorely needs is some new genetic diversity that can help the plant thrive under changing conditions. We need to locate genetic traits that help coffee survive droughts and disease epidemics and frosts. But before we can locate those traits, we need a system for preserving the genetic diversity that already exists. Much of this diversity is severely threatened and in danger of being lost forever.
With Crop Trust, World Coffee Research is working on exactly this: a strategy to protect coffee, forever. The strategy will lay out a path for shoring up the most important genebanks (these are fields where hundreds of types of coffee are stored for conservation and later use by researchers) and helping breeders to create the next generation of varieties that meet coffee’s main challenges. (And not just today! Imagine a totally new, virulent coffee disease emerges in the year 2039. Genebanks are where we will turn to find ways to fight that disease.)
But there is another critical vulnerability in the system, one that is putting farmers at risk as you read these words.
Imagine this: You are a coffee farmer whose farm was hit hard by coffee leaf rust and you lost 50% of your plants. You need to replant with new trees, and this time you are definitely going to replant with rust-resistant varieties. But where do you get them? And how do you know they are rust-resistant? Do you ask your neighbor whose farm didn’t seem to have as many trees die as you—maybe he can sell you some of his seed? That sounds foolproof, right? Even if you are lucky and have access to a more sophisticated nursery, how can you be sure the plants you buy are what they say they are?
In the US, we are so used to quality assurance and regulation that we take things like this for granted. Coffee farmers have no such luxury. Currently in coffee, there are no verification schemes that provide assurance that the plants a farmer buys are genetically pure and stable. To begin addressing this problem, World Coffee Research created the WCR Verified program to ensure that nurseries have healthy, genetically pure plants. Together with third-party certifier NSF International, the program is being tested and rolled out in Central America this year.
Without access to genetic variability and verified coffee seeds, the coffee industry — all those millions of jobs and billions of dollars — risks finding itself unable to cope with the challenges of climate change, new pests and diseases and ever-rising demand.
Hanna Neuschwander is the Communications Director at World Coffee Research.
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