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Global stakeholders convene to plan for Robusta coffee global research

Oct. 15, 2018

Researchers, producing-country governments, coffee companies, and others took part in an important dialogue on how to improve the Robusta production sector and the livelihoods of households that produce it.

From left to right: Hans Faessler (NKG); Tim Schilling (WCR); Charles Lambot (Nestle); Solene Pruvot-Woehl (WCR); Lucile Toniutti (WCR); Rene de Leon (Promecafe); Dr Hue (Vietnam); Benoit Bertrand (CIRAD); Dr Hong (Vietnam); Christophe Montagnon (WCR); Prof Sangare (Côte d'Ivoire); Dr Raghuramulu (India); Ucu Sumirat (Indonesia); Mario Cerutti (Lavazza); Dr. Moisés Cortés Cruz (Mexico); Jaap Dieleman (JDE); Stephane Canz (Nestle).

As climate change continues to impact global coffee production, the Coffea arabica species of coffee is losing its ability to perform in many coffee-producing zones due to warmer temperatures, increased plant diseases, and other factors. Amid this landscape, the industry is continuing to explore ways to leverage the Coffea canephora species (to be referred to as Robusta from here on, and including the Brazil-produced Conilon), which is generally more resilient and more resistant to disease than Arabica.

This topic was the focus of the First International Collaborative and Precompetitive Robusta Research Planning Meeting, which took place October 2-3 at the offices of the International Coffee Organization (ICO) in London. Co-organized by World Coffee Research (WCR) and Nestlé, the meeting brought together a range of global stakeholders, including representatives from ICO and CIRAD; Robusta research centers in producing countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, India, Uganda, Vietnam, Mexico, and the members of Promecafe; and coffee companies including Nestlé, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Lavazza, Mercon Group, and Neumann Kaffe Gruppe.  

The purpose of the meeting was for attendees to discuss, define, and share a common vision of the main research and development priorities for Robusta. It was a strong success, with an active dialogue and clear next steps established. Among the key learnings from the event:

  • The attending countries expressed that the main challenges they face in growing coffee are related to climate change, with increased drought (water deficit) and heat in Robusta-growing areas.
  • Quality was also mentioned as a cross-cutting issue. Attendees indicated that two non-exclusive objectives were to be considered: first, increasing the standard quality of Robusta (clean cup, lowered bitterness), and second, aiming for “specialty” Robusta quality.
  • Some country-specific challenges were noted, such as nematode pressure in Vietnam and the resurgence of rust in Côte d’Ivoire.
  • C. canephora has a wide genetic diversity (much wider than C. arabica). Furthermore, it is easy to cross C. canephora with other diploid species such as C. congensis or C. liberica. The Agronomic Research Institute of Côte d’Ivoire (CNRA) has one of the biggest coffee germplasm collections in the world. It was agreed that supporting the maintenance, evaluation, and use of CNRA’s germplasm collection is a top priority.
  • Additionally, CNRA, as well as Cirad and Nestlé—both of which have a good representation of the genetic diversity of C. canephora—indicated that they are open to sharing these genetic resources as long as it follows the usual formal path of exchange of genetic resources.
  • While it was observed that most countries and Nestlé have selected top Robusta varieties, those varieties are not being widely used by farmers (with the notable exception of Vietnam). The reasons for that range from a lack of efficient seed sector for mass multiplication to the hesitation of farmers to drop old resilient varieties.
Arbusta conference

Tim Schilling presents at the workshop.

Taking all of this information into account, the parties in attendance at the meeting decided unanimously to immediately create a technical committee to move forward with a global Robusta International Multilocation Variety Trial to test the performance of different Robusta varieties in several locations around the world. The trial will follow the same format as WCR’s International Multilocation Variety Trial for Arabica, which has brought over 30 top varieties of Arabica to 23 countries around the world for rigorous testing.

Christophe Montagnon, scientific director of WCR, said the Robusta IMLVT is an exciting outcome from the meeting. “The Robusta-focused IMVLT will be a key element of a global strategy for advanced research on Robusta,” he said. “Through the IMLVT, we can gauge the performance of existing varieties around the world as researchers prepare the Robusta varieties of tomorrow. It is also the best way to give birth to an international Robusta research community that will soon go beyond IMLVT and address advanced research for this species.” 

At the conclusion of the meeting, CNRA (Côte d’Ivoire) proposed to set the next group meeting for early 2019 in Côte d’Ivoire, allowing the group to build upon the important conversations that were started at this inaugural Robusta gathering. 

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