The future of robusta breeding: an update

Strategy centered on a global, collaborative, and demand-led breeding network for robusta forges ahead

In 2023, World Coffee Research embarked on a journey to begin exploring the opportunities for strengthening global robusta production through enhanced robusta research and breeding.

In recent decades, robusta cultivation has steadily grown, rising from 25% to 40% of total global coffee production since the early 1990s. Until now, arabica held reign over most of the coffee market due to preferences for its cup quality, but many factors, including the increasing demand for coffee have led to expansions in robusta production. In the last year alone, 177 million 60 kilogram bags of coffee were consumed worldwide—a 2.2% increase from the 2022-23 production year and a striking 4.5% jump from 2019-2020 (ICO, April 2024)—and demand is not expected to slow down.

Robusta cherries, 2024

Freshly picked robusta cherries at World Coffee Research's farm in El Salvador, April 2024.

In October, WCR published a commissioned study from AbacusBio, a genetic-improvement consultancy that operates at the intersection of science and business. This study identified a clear opportunity for global robusta breeding, citing the potential for increasing consolidation of production, exposure to the impacts of climate change, and lack of investment in robusta research to impede the industry’s ability to meet supply and quality demands by as early as 2040.

Since then, WCR has formed a strategy centered on a global, collaborative, and demand-led robusta breeding network. WCR will partner with national coffee institutes in robusta producing countries around the world. This network will operate in parallel to the Innovea Global Coffee Breeding Network for arabica to ensure both species are optimized for the climates and farmers of the future.

Robusta breeding takes shape

The robusta breeding strategy, which was generated through technical consultation with scientists from prospective network partners, has undergone rigorous peer review and approval by a group of diverse and world-renowned breeding experts. These reviewers’ expertise spans a wide variety of crops and they represent a mix of public and private sector organizations from both high and low-income countries.

WCR’s robusta breeding initiative will span four stages, including design of target product profiles, creation of useful genetic variation, propagation and distribution of at least 1,000 unique clones to partners for onward evaluation and selection at partner sites. The first breeding cycle is already underway—in April of 2024, WCR’s breeding team initiated crosses using optimally selected founding parents so as to increase the chances of recovering clones that are adapted and tailored to the local conditions for each network partner.

Robusta crosses, 2024, FFA

Dr. Jorge Berny, Research Scientist for Breeding and Genomics, examines a robusta tree at the organization's research farm in El Salvador, April 2024.

The seeds resulting from these crosses will be harvested in February 2025. After harvest, seeds will be prepared, germinated, and selections propagated—with a target to select 1,000 unique clones and distribute a total of 41,000 plantlets to partners. Plantlets will be installed at partner sites in 2027 and evaluated in trial plots for six years.

This first breeding cycle will run for nine years overall, through to 2033, when each partner will select top-performing clones to be considered for variety registration trials or further breeding, leveraging performance data from across the network.

Breeding team talks strategy, Flor Amarilla, 2024

World Coffee Research's breeding team talks strategy at the organization's research farm, April 2024.

Ensuring the future of robusta—together

As WCR continues its work to enhance global robusta production and increase its quality, the organization will depend greatly on the input from producing country partners that will participate in the forthcoming breeding network.

These collaborations—which center on ensuring that breeding outcomes are sustainable and offer relevant, long-term solutions for farmers globally—are essential to driving innovation and change for coffee. Official partners will be announced in the coming year in preparation for the network’s launch, slated for 2025.