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US considers adding coffee to key genebank

Aug. 8, 2017

Recognizing coffee's lack of genetic diversity

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been asked by Congress to do a feasibility study on establishing a coffee genebank in Hilo, Hawaii. The request comes in recognition of coffee's lack of genetic diversity and economic importance in Hawaii. A report from Greenwire cites the work of World Coffee Research in drawing attention to the need for the long-term preservation of coffee genetic resources.

Here's the full story from Greenwire:

Congress may soon step into the struggle to save coffee from climate change.

A provision tucked into the Senate's agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal 2018 prods the Department of Agriculture to add coffee to a handful of crops in the agency's stockpile of genetic material from plants that suffer a lack of genetic diversity.

If Congress agrees to the proposal by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), coffee could join the ranks of cranberries, blueberries, hazelnuts and seven other crops in the Agricultural Research Service's National Clonal Germplasm Repository, a Corvallis, Ore., lab devoted to protecting those crops and their variants that grow in the wild. {Ed note: The article incorrectly states the gene bank is in Oregon; it is actually in Hilo, Hawaii.}

Schatz's provision, which the Senate Appropriations Committee included in a manager's amendment, directs the ARS to study and report to Congress on the feasibility of adding coffee to the national repository.

Despite the wide variety of coffee that consumers can find in cafes and supermarkets, the coffee plant is limited to just a few genetic strains. That's especially true of arabica coffee, the most in demand by consumers, researchers said.

With so little genetic diversity, researchers say, coffee is especially vulnerable to the effects of a warming climate, including disruptions to growing conditions and increased threats from pests and diseases. That could lead to a disastrous decline in supply, according to World Coffee Research, a nonprofit devoted to protecting the crop.

"Today's best coffee varieties are no match for the environmental threats of the 21st century — changing weather patterns, increased temperatures, and new disease and insect prevalence," the organization said on its website.

Scientists are also up against the realities of world economics. Many coffee-producing countries in Africa and the Caribbean can't afford to pursue the issue, said Sarada Krishnan, director of horticulture and the Center for Global Initiatives at the Denver Botanic Gardens in Colorado.

"Research has been very poor," said Krishnan, who is working with World Coffee Research to develop a conservation plan.

The challenge may soon come closer to home for U.S. policymakers. The possibility of increased coffee production in California makes protecting the crop even more in the nation's interest, Krishnan said.
The Senate provision's fate hinges on how Congress crafts a final spending bill for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1. Agriculture spending appears likely to be spelled out in a broad measure covering many federal agencies and worked out by top House and Senate leaders later this year.

A spokesman for Schatz said he didn't have additional information on the senator's provision, but in the past, Schatz has supported USDA funding to fight the coffee berry borer in Hawaii, including in the 2014 farm bill.

Coffee researchers believe that if they could assemble germ plasm from more varieties of coffee in places such as Yemen and Ethiopia, then more variability could be preserved, said Juan Medrano, a genetic researcher working with an arabica variety in California called Geisha.

The ARS repository collects, maintains and distributes germ plasm for hazelnuts, strawberries, hops, mint, pears, currants, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries and lingonberries, as well as their wild crop relatives, according to the agency's website.

Gene scientists run into pleasant surprises sometimes. ARS scientists exploring the high peaks of Oregon's Cascade Mountains in 2013 found a new variety of wild strawberry. They added it to the repository's living collection, with the goal of crossing it with other varieties, the agency said at the time in a news release.

  • Authors: N/A
  • Publisher: Greenwire