2022 in review: annual update from CEO Vern Long
An update the progress achieved for the coffee industry in 2022
In mid-November, amidst talks at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27), the global community achieved limited progress. As many readers may already know, the window is closing for meeting the 1.5C goal, and it’s clearer now more than ever that we must take concrete, effective action worldwide to respond to the enormity of the climate crisis.
For those outside of the coffee industry, this limited progress may cultivate disillusionment, but for members and partners of WCR, the outlook is far more promising. WCR members and partners are undertaking exactly what has been eluding many at the COP27 talks—expansive collaboration, crucial financial commitment, impact at scale, and innovative solutions. We are truly living in an inspiring time. With this in mind, and as we head into the new year, I thought it would be a fitting time to reflect upon the progress WCR achieved in 2022 and what we have to look forward to over the next few months.
Looking at the big picture, we made some significant strides as an organization representing over 200 companies that deal in the coffee industry worldwide:
- Launched the Innovea Global Coffee Breeding Network
- Established a new funding model
- Deepened public investment in coffee R&D
- Provided robust support for national partners
- Strengthened nurseries and seed sectors
- Met major milestones in our F1 hybrids and international variety trial programs
These accomplishments are particularly meaningful in the current moment as we strive to effectively and concretely address the risks posed against coffee agriculture. It is critical that we unify our voices as an industry to make sure that public investment is oriented toward growing, protecting, and enhancing supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of those who produce it.
I am proud to say that in 2022, WCR member companies and our research partners made huge strides that are, quite frankly, just the right size and at just the right point to address the situation the world faces today. We have focused our portfolio on the highest-leverage investments for overcoming the sheer magnitude of the climate crisis, driving the greatest value for our members, and implementing action on a global scale.
As we navigate this work, it’s important to remember the why behind everything we do. When sunlight strikes a leaf, an ancient, complex process unfolds—a process on which we are profoundly dependent for our future. Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, what we breathe out, gets broken apart. While the plant returns the oxygen back to the atmosphere for us to breathe, the carbon stays put inside the plant. In other words, it gets “fixed.” Plants draw water through their roots and bring hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon together to create sugars.
Fixing carbon—turning the air we exhale and water from soil into the sugars that sustain flora and fauna alike—is what plants do extraordinarily well. They do it every day to stay alive. And for us to stay alive, we need plants to continue what they do best. There is no more strongly aligned alliance than what humans have with plants. Without them, how will we breathe?
With them, we can mitigate climate change. As an industry not just dependent on plants, but on trees in particular, we offer something incredibly potent to the world. Coffee demand will continue to grow in the coming years, and that growth must be met with responsibility: agriculture that meets our supply needs while ensuring quality.
In 2023, we look forward to building on the momentum we gained over the last year and further expanding our work to ensure the future of coffee.
Below, you can find in-depth updates on the items included in the list above:
In 2022, we launched Innovea, our global Arabica breeding program. Innovea is a partnership between the global industry and national researchers in 9 countries across the Americas, Eastern Africa, and South/Southeast Asia. The network bridges the industry and coffee-producing countries to ensure that next-generation varieties can withstand the production challenges confronting the industry due to the climate crisis. This program will focus on improving productivity, reducing land-use conversion and thereby emissions, resilience to pests, diseases, changing weather patterns, and other abiotic stressors, while ensuring that quality remains at the center of the initiative.
To provide supply risk management options to our industry, both arabica and robusta are critically important, and it is paramount that we support global breeding investments for both species, as we committed to in our 2021–25 strategy. In our recent member survey, 39% of respondents reported that they procure robusta—reinforcing the importance and relevance of this species to our membership. In 2023, we will initiate the design of our global robusta breeding program to better understand our industry’s goals for the species, including factors like quality, quantity, and geographic priorities, among others, with plans to launch the program in 2024.
New funding model
As of January 2022, WCR shifted to a new membership and funding model. While WCR’s previous funding model took a charity-like approach—contribution amounts were voluntary and determined by each member company—the new model links contribution amounts to coffee purchase volumes or annual revenue.
This approach aims to provide greater equity and transparency among member companies, and is better suited to provide sustainable funding for agricultural research. Membership fees are unrestricted contributions that provide critical funding for all of WCR’s programmatic activities. The new model supports WCR to execute its 2021-2025 strategic plan, which includes the launch in 2022 of a new Global Breeding Network for coffee. For complete details, see our membership page.
Advocacy to drive increased public support for coffee R&D
As we move into 2023, the U.S. Farm Bill will be a primary focus of WCR advocacy engagement, as this is the legislation that guides the government’s agricultural research investments for the next five years. WCR, in partnership with Hawaiian coffee grower associations and the National Coffee Association (NCA), has been consolidating research priorities to identify the key elements for targeted advocacy in the negotiation process.
Our industry relies on production in many countries, and any research supported through this bill’s programs will fundamentally contribute to innovations that reduce risk, drive productivity, and improve quality wherever they are applied. WCR’s priority in this process is to increase the total amount of public investment flowing to priority areas for agricultural R&D in coffee. These funds would support U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists to address key issues (e.g., covering the cost of the nation’s participation in Innovea), while other funds would be competitively awarded to universities and consortia of organizations aiming to tackle coffee’s primary challenges. WCR may participate in these competitive applications.
Given the significant investment gap in coffee R&D—roughly $100M per year—our industry needs to mobilize investment from multiple areas to reduce the production/supply risk we face due to the pressures of climate change and historical underinvestment in coffee agriculture. WCR is well situated to lead high-leverage advocacy efforts. We can begin to close the innovation gap in coffee, and once we get this process underway in the U.S., we will explore and initiate similar processes in other consuming countries.
Support to national partners
In 2022, WCR furthered work to link national coffee research institutes with public investment partners to enhance their research capacity to generate critical technology for farmers. For instance, in Ethiopia, WCR is finalizing a joint report with the government of Ethiopia’s national agricultural research institute that articulates an investment roadmap for modernizing the country’s coffee breeding program. The assessment was underwritten by WCR member companies in partnership with the U.S. government. Ethiopia is a tremendously important origin for our membership, with 88% of our members reporting they procure coffee from the country (the highest of any origin we surveyed).
Ethiopia’s unique history as the origin of arabica sets it apart from other origins and elevates the importance of its national research institute to generate critical technology for its farmers. WCR is finalizing a joint report with the government of Ethiopia’s national agricultural research institute that articulates an investment roadmap for modernizing the country’s coffee breeding program. Unlike other origins that are able to participate in global collaborative activities like Innovea, Ethiopia’s unique position in the industry and particular national legislation requires a tailored, country-specific response. WCR’s goal is to support upgrades to the country’s national breeding program to strengthen its ability to deliver climate-resilient varieties to farmers that respect the quality features distinctive to its locations.
In 2023, WCR and the government of Ethiopia will present this joint report to a group of 6-8 donor representatives of consuming countries to advocate for a shared investment in modernizing Ethiopia’s coffee breeding program, upgrading research facilities including the cupping lab, and enhancing staff capacity through targeted support in Ph.D. and master’s degree training.
This type of engagement between WCR, a producing-country’s government, and consuming countries’ representatives, is the type of high-leverage approach that is required to bring concrete action plans to public investors interested in supporting climate adaptation and mitigation goals. Through coordinated industry outreach to consuming country development donors, in partnership with national coffee trade associations, we are able to align investment toward shared goals and reduce inefficiencies among those donors interested in investment.
Nursery and seed sector progress
As we look forward to 2023, our nursery program is taking hold in Uganda, Central America, and Peru. Latin American nursery and seed sector activities will be underwritten through investment from the U.S. government, and we’ve received preliminary approval to continue these efforts through 2024. This two-year extension will provide additional funds to WCR to clean arabica seed lots—bringing quality assurance to varieties, ensuring seeds are pure and perform predictably—in addition to providing professionalization services and training to nurseries in the region.
While these activities deliver value in the short-term to participating nurseries, seed lot owners, and their farmer-customers, we will use these opportunities to undertake deeper analysis and evaluation via quality assurance technology and training materials. We are a learning organization that seeks to question our methods and approaches so we can continuously improve program options. This is especially important in the seed sector, where there has been fragmented investment and engagement despite the remarkable opportunity to improve plant quality and purity while reducing farmer and supply risk.
In Uganda, we will deepen our work in seed sector efforts with continued engagement in robusta nurseries. This work will inform future robusta seed sector work as we deepen our knowledge and expertise in the species.
International Multi-location Variety Trial (IMLVT) and F1 hybrid trial advancements
In 2015, we launched the International Multilocation Variety Trial (IMLVT) program, which initiated the evaluation of high-performing varieties and their performance in different locations across the world. This year, the program turned seven years old—meaning a critical mass of original trial sites reached maturity—and produced its initial results on a global scale.
These results, while not yet comprehensive as data collection is still ongoing, include information on variety performance in terms of yield, disease resistance, and cup quality. Even more, they underscore the need for further multi-environment testing when determining those coffees that are most climate resilient or best suited to a specific country’s future climate.
Similarly, this year, the first phase of our F1 hybrid trials wrapped up and four finalist candidates were identified. This trial was initiated to cross high-performing coffee varieties and generate new F1 hybrids aimed at improving productivity, tolerance to disease, improved cup quality, and climate resilience. WCR issued a call for expressions of interest (EOIs) from partners to host next-phase, pre-commercial hybrid trials for the four finalists, and is in the process of evaluating these submissions and identifying suitable partners. In preparation for potential trials, WCR has engaged CATIE to propagate 12,000 hybrid trees via somatic embryogenesis.