Vicente Partida is the communications coordinator for World Coffee Research and the Borlaug Institute, WCR’s management entity. Follow his caffeinated ramblings at twitter.com/vincepartida.
This past April, a team of experts representing World Coffee Research traveled to the Boma Plateau in South Sudan on a germplasm collection expedition through the forest. The plateau sits across a valley from Ethiopia, considered the origin of the Arabica coffee species.
The team of experts included:
- Emma Bladyka, coffee science manager, Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)
- Lindsey Bolger, director of coffee sourcing and relationships, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters
- Aaron Davis, coffee taxonomist, Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium
- Sarada Krishnan, director of horticulture, Denver Botanic Gardens Global Initiative
- Tim Schilling, executive director, World Coffee Research (WCR)
Staff members from the USAID-funded project titled JGMUST: A Consortium for Development hosted the coffee experts. The JGMUST project is based at the John Garang Memorial University for Science and Technology in Bor, South Sudan, and is led by the Borlaug Institute. Two students, Thon Nyok Dor and Major Ayuen, as well as one faculty member, Dr. Richard, from the South Sudanese university accompanied the coffee experts on the expedition.
Traveling through the forest, the World Coffee Research team was on a mission to find and collect wild Arabica coffee. The last time a researcher had done a similar trip was back in the 1940s when botanist Dr. A.S. Thomas recorded his observations of a much different Boma forest than what the WCR team found— a forest that was yet unscathed by a changing global climate where healthy Arabica coffee trees grew wild.
Tim Schilling, who led the expedition, said that 75 Arabica accessions were collected and the team may have discovered one new coffee species. The genetic material is currently in the lab and the discovery of the new species is still to be confirmed.
During the 5-day trek, the team noticed serious degradation in the forest. The effects of climate change, they said, were clear.
Serious water stress was noted among the plant population in the area as well as “fewer and less remarkable” coffee populations than what Dr. A.S. Thomas recorded during his trek in the 1940s.
“For example, we found not one coffee plant possessing a 7” or greater trunk diameter whereas Dr. Thomas found many,” said Tim Schilling.
“That’s what’s so compelling about this! We went to South Sudan knowing that the Boma Plateau is about 300 meters on the average lower than the Ethiopian forest but we did not expect there to be such a huge difference in the degradation due to climate change,” he added.
Research by Aaron Davis, coffee taxonomist for the Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium, shows a 99% probably that the Arabica coffee species will be extinct on the Boma Plateau due to the effects of climate change by 2020. That is, wild Arabica coffee growing in that forest will be completely gone in less than 8 years.
What can be done now?
“Well, we won’t be able to change the climate by that time,” says Schilling, “but we can certainly salvage as much germplasm as possible in the next two years before we start losing all those important genes.”
But what’s the point?
There is high probability that the material collected could have climate change-resistant genetic traits. This is important because these materials could be cross-bred with high quality varieties currently used in producing countries. If this is done, there is potential to grow Arabica coffee trees that are tolerant to the effects of climate change yet still produce high volumes of quality coffee for the specialty coffee industry.
“The natural selection pressure that was placed on those Arabica species that are in the Boma forest today— all the heat, drought, all the climate change effects— tell us that the surviving Arabica plants should be much more hardy in terms of climate change tolerance,” added Schilling.
World Coffee Research looks forward to evaluating these land races for their agronomical traits. Our researchers are looking for genetic material that will contain traits that can produce coffee of high quality, high yields, that are pest resistant, and climate change resistant— including high heat and drought tolerance.
“Once we’ve found outstanding superior material, it will be used in breeding programs with our partners around the world to produce the high quality coffee plants that we hope to have available by 2030,” added Tim Schilling.
Below is an excerpt from the article about the expedition to the Boma Plateau written by SCAA Coffee Science Manager, Emma Bladyka, for the Specialty Coffee Chronicle. If you are an SCAA member, you can read the full article on the SCAA’s website. Emma’s exciting account of the expedition through the Boma forest will be available on the WCR Blog soon.
“It was the tail end of the dry season in South Sudan. Our base camp, located in the small village of Jonglei, was dusty and despite being at 1100 meters elevation, was well above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. I had just hiked up all 1100 of these meters, much of which were unshaded, with only the water I could carry. Small huts made of mud and straw sat in the shade of large, broad leaved trees. There was a loud thump next to me and when I looked down I discovered a blushing yellow-green mango. The village was full of mango trees (or maybe, the mango grove was full of village).
Somehow, in the most desolate season, these mango trees produce an astonishing abundance of beautiful huge fruit, oozing with sweet juicy nectar for all thirsty residents (and visiting scientists) to consume to their heart’s content. It is an amazing feat and I could not help but stop and revel in the sheer ingenuity of those trees. The mango roots systems must have been extensive and the trees resilient to support such production during the long dry season. A moment short lived, I only marveled as long as it took me to get out my knife and dig into a thirst quenching fruit. I was not there for the mangos; I was there in search of something more elusive, perhaps an even more extraordinary plant, Coffea arabica.” –Emma Bladyka
Want to be a part of the exciting new research in coffee? Join us! Become a member of WCR at WorldCoffeeResearch.org/GetInvolved.