Breeding for the Future
In 2022, WCR will launch it's most exciting project to date—a global breeding network that will utilize modern genomic selection approaches to generate improved breeding populations for coffee breeding programs around the world.
With a business-as-usual approach, current coffee breeding programs are overtaken by the challenges of climate change and will be unable to generate innovations quickly enough to respond to the growing challenges faced by farmers.
National coffee institutes conduct the lion’s share of agricultural R&D, on behalf of the farmers in their countries. National research programs face significant challenges when it comes the long-term investments required for breeding. But it’s also difficult for them to lower costs through collaboration—breeding activities are one way that countries enhance their competitiveness in the market. Meanwhile, breeding programs have historically been cut off from industry, meaning that new varieties are developed without input from roasters or consumers.
The coffee community requires a different approach to coordinating and implementing coffee breeding if we are to succeed in improving coffee quality and securing long-term supply in the face of the climate crisis.
Significant genetic gains can be achieved with existing coffee germplasm if modern breeding approaches are brought into coffee. The cornerstone of WCR’s strategy is the creation of a Global Breeding Network that will bring together the capacities of participating countries to accelerate the pace of coffee genetic improvement, while increasing their access to novel germplasm, training, and tools that lower the barriers to participating in modern breeding. In this network, collaboration enables deeper competitiveness among coffee producing country partners, and breeding will simultaneously respond to the needs of farmers and of roasters and consumers. It is cost-effective—economies of scale and costs are shared with partners at origin. It is nimble—it provides tremendous value to countries otherwise unable to truly tackle the challenges of climate change on their own. The network connects researchers across national boundaries to share knowledge and experience and achieve results that would be impossible for programs working in isolation.
Modern coffee breeding can solve multiple problems at once. For example, it will bring more durable resistance to key pests and diseases into coffee varieties, reducing the need for pesticides. It can bring higher-quality coffee to lower elevations, expanding the potential for production in tomorrow’s hotter temperatures. It can deliver varieties with higher yield stability across a broader array of environments—critical for climate change adaptation—and/or tailored to specific environments.
Using the latest technologies available for crop improvement, the Global Breeding Network will drive a transformation in the global coffee supply. Through a demand-led breeding approach, together, the industry and farmers will design the coffee of the future. In the next two decades, we expect that multiple countries will have a basket of improved varieties that are more productive and climate resilient, better tasting, and more diverse than all of today’s current varieties. From then on, there will be a continuous pipeline of ever-improving more stable/predictable and diverse available to farmers through their national research institutions.
Key features of the Global Breeding Network
- Novel germplasm. WCR creates global base populations in breeding factories from multiparent crosses of elite lines from multiple world regions and other useful germplasm. Parents were selected based upon results from the International Multilocaiton Variety Trial, diversity of resistance sources, based upon product profiles addressing farmer, roaster and consumer needs.
- Multi-environment testing for climate resilience. Populations sets are distributed to partners in diverse agroecological environments (e.g., lots of countries) to evaluate coffee plants in many different target production environments to understand the basis genotype by environment (GxE) interactions and performance stability.
- Genomic selection. Train local and global models for prediction of breeding values. Molecular breeding approaches can deliver genetic gain that is time- and cost-effective; given the timelines for breeding a tree crop like coffee and the reality of climate change, molecular tools are absolutely essential.
- Continuous improvement through recurrent selection. Participating national programs will receive improved populations in subsequent cycles based upon the recombination of individuals with the highest breeding values across traits in a centralized large population, increasing the beneficial allele frequencies identified in different agroecological environments. This allows the network to continually replenish national breeding programs with superior breeding material to develop new lines.
- Coopetition. The more countries cooperate to share data on multi-environment performance, the more competitive they can be to tailor varieties to their particular market and environmental niche for today and tomorrow. Cooperation also lowers the cost for individual countries to access tools required for modernization. This maximizes impact while keeping the program attractive for countries to participate.
- Impact-oriented. National partners can further develop the germplasm and deliver a continuous supply of improved varieties that outperform current varieties.
- Demand-led. The breeding network will deliver varieties that farmers want to grow and that answer specific needs of roasters and consumers.
- Breeder diversity. The network enables breeders to work across borders on a common problem—developing elite germplasm to fuel the next generation of varieties—and exposes them to subject matter experts sharing ideas to stimulate further innovation.
Collaboration + Competition = Coopetition
We propose that transformation of the world’s coffee breeding infrastructure requires a “coopetition” model.
- Collaboration. The key factors – larger population sizes with greater diversity than is normally achieved through simple two-parent populations, diverse production environments in which to test material, and phenomic and genomic selection tools to improve precision of selection and shorten selection cycles – require broad, global collaboration. In particular, true climate resilience requires that countries work together. Even if individual countries have the best molecular tools and a high-powered breeding program, they are limited to evaluating breeding material in their own existing production environments—they will not be able to see how genes within plants perform when a hotter/wetter/drier/colder production environment arrives on their doorstep, at which point it will already be too late.
- Competition. At the same time, national breeding efforts are fundamentally part of producing countries’ competition with one another. Many have ambitious goals to expand both exports and domestic consumption.
- Coopetition. In a “coopetition” framework, deeper collaboration enables deeper competitiveness among participating national programs. The model offers a new way for producing countries obtain access to best-in-class technology and climate resilient germplasm, while also supporting national competitive ambitions.
A full list of participating countries will be shared in 2022.