By Danielle Woods, Manager, ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) with Inspire Brands, Inc.
In honor of Earth month, we are featuring one of the most prominent organizations in the coffee industry that is using global agricultural R&D to address and mitigate climate change for coffee: World Coffee Research (WCR).
Vern Long is CEO of World Coffee Research, the only industry-driven organization advancing agricultural innovation for coffee, formed to help the industry secure the long-term supply of quality coffee.
Vern, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I started my academic life in plant breeding, with an interest in genetic diversity and how to mobilize that diversity to address challenges. Variety development was always something I was excited about. When I was 16, my family was driving cross-country, and my mom brought a big stack of National Geographic magazines. I began reading a story about genetic diversity and how it can address the world’s biggest challenges, and from that moment I was hooked.
How did you end up in coffee?
I was doing research in Senegal and Zimbabwe, looking at food systems and how we use agricultural systems to deliver on those goals. I wanted to move from direct research to managing partnerships so joined USAID to help launch the Feed the Future Initiative. This was a broad interagency effort where we developed an agricultural research strategy to enable agriculture to drive economic growth and be a lever for reducing poverty. Over 9 years I managed agricultural research collaborations focused on developing new varieties in many crops, trying to better develop collaborative research to enable scientists to accomplish more together rather than going it alone. I realized there was an opportunity in coffee. The countries producing coffee are very competitive with one another, and have insufficient budgets given the challenges they face. I believed I could bring a lot of experience from working on global research collaborations to support coffee. As an avid coffee drinker, when I understood all of the challenges, it seemed even more urgent to get into coffee at a personal level. [HN1]
What are some of the challenges within the coffee sector today?
Varieties are a technology that farmers rely on, whether they are tomato growers or coffee farmers. The last time the world had a truly global collaborative research program to produce real innovation in coffee varieties was in 1967, when the Timor Hybrid was mobilized to create coffee leaf rust resistant arabica varieties that are now growing all over the world. So many other crops continued making progress over the years, while coffee did not at a global scale. Mobilizing diversity is critical to our ability to survive with the climate challenges ahead of us. Plant populations across the world are crossed to create new genetic combinations —they can do things that their parents cannot. There are real gaps in coffee, and it is important to develop greater interaction among scientists and the plants themselves which we will achieve by supporting a global coffee breeding network.
What are some of WCR’s strategic priorities?
We are launching a global breeding network that is aligned with the importance of our crop. Coffee drives economic opportunity in many producing countries; it is important to millions of people for a variety of reasons. We are developing varieties to support that need, while preserving the quality that consumers and coffee companies want and identifying the characteristics for farmers to enable their success.
Breeding is critical but it also takes decades, and farmers are planting trees today that will be in the ground for the next twenty years. We know that if they plant the wrong tree, there are consequences. At scale, this poses tremendous risk in terms of supply. So, in addition to variety development, we need to provide tools to support farmer decision-making with the varieties we have available today. WCR has created technical tools to help farmers determine the right variety for them, to have access to healthier plants, and to feel sure the seeds are using are genetically pure. Farmers need to know going in what type of tree they are producing so they can manage it successfully.
How do you reach farmers with your technologies and tools?
What we do drives change, but research and development happens upstream of farmers. We partner with national coffee institutes and organizations like Technoserve to make the connection between new varieties, nurseries, and farmers. At WCR, we want to make sure we have a relevant portfolio of technologies to share with farmers through our partnerships.
How can organizations get involved with WCR?
We believe that every company in the coffee sector should invest in agricultural research and development for coffee’s long-term existence, whether that’s via WCR or another mechanism. There is a huge gap in the funding of coffee agriculture research and development. If you look at investment levels for other crops with similar economic value as coffee—there is a profound gap. We need to acknowledge the gap and recognize that if we want to have coffee in the years ahead, we need investment. To put it bluntly: the alternative is that our children will all be drinking synthetic coffee – which is more than simply a shift for consumers, it removes an important source of revenue for farmers and producing countries. When you are a member of WCR, you drive the agenda. Companies that are not participating do not get a seat at the table to weigh in on the varieties of the future.
What is something you want the coffee sector to be aware of?
We need to make sure the industry understands the risks facing the coffee industry but recognize the opportunity as well. If you look at the success of other crops, we can bring those tools and technologies into coffee. If we want to continue sourcing coffee from diverse origins, we need to understand we have a choice in the matter and a collective responsibility to drive investment to support our collective goals. But protecting coffee is bigger than just our industry. Coffee produces revenue for lower income countries and contributes significantly to human welfare.
Now it is Earth Month, what does Earth Day mean to you?
Things are pretty grim around the world and there is a lot going on that can make you feel powerless in the face of large planetary challenges. We need to sequester more carbon in biomass on the planet. We need more trees to help reduce emissions. Those of us involved in tree agriculture—i.e., the entire coffee industry—can play a role. There is a unique opportunity for coffee to do something for the entire global community. We are in the tree business, and trees are a technology that if deployed well and thoughtfully can help us sequester a tremendous amount of carbon. Farmers need more productive coffee trees. Young growing trees absorb a lot of carbon dioxide. Renovating coffee farms at scale has the potential to solve two problems at once. If your organization has a priority to reduce emissions or a commitment to net zero, trees are a very promising place to start and investment in agricultural research and development can deliver.
To learn more about WCR’s efforts visit https://worldcoffeeresearch.org/.
[HN1]If we need space, could cut this line