WCR Think + Drink
The Think + Drink is our annual gathering and report-out to the coffee community about WCR's progress over the prior year and a preview of what's ahead. Highlights include a virtual tour of the harvest of experimental F1 hybrids in El Salvador, the results of a recent global consultation about coffee R&D priorities, and an update on our 2020-2025 strategy.
Think + Drink Q&A: Answers
There were many questions asked in the Think + Drink that we weren’t able to answer during the event. We have compiled and organized those questions by theme and answered them here:
How is WCR being impacted by Covid19?
In most countries, our field staff are—much to their frustration!—working from home until it is safe to get back out into the field. Covid has led to some delays in planting, data collection, and maintenance of trials, but as of now it seems that these impacts will not be too large.
Will the work at WCR help with any impending impact of Covid 19?
No. The time-scale of agricultural research for a tree crop is far longer than the expected timeline of impact of Covid-19. WCR is in close contact with the farmers and other partners who collaborate with us to ensure their personal safety, but the impacts so far have been relatively minimal.
WCR has created some F1 hybrids that use Geisha as one of the parents. Are there any results on these hybrids yet?
We have just completed the first harvest of 36 F1 hybrids in Central America, some of which include Geisha as a parent. Unfortunately, cupping evaluations had to be postponed because of Covid19, but we are working to reschedule this for summer in a “virtual” format, using cuppers from our member companies. We will be analyzing the data this summer. We will use the results to determine which of the 36 are low-performing such that they can be removed from the trial for subsequent years. Because you need multiple years of data in order to be sure about a variety’s performance, we will continue these evaluations for 3-4 more harvest cycles.
Is there a way to speed up the time it takes to breed new varieties of Arabica, as like in vegetables?
Breeding tree crops takes a long time! (Typical time to release for an F1 hybrid is 10-20 years; for a pure line variety it is 25-30 years.) In vegetables, breeders have found ways to speed up the breeding process by shortening the flowering cycles. We are looking into whether this might be possible for arabica. Other approaches to speeding up breeding include using molecular markers. This is also a significant part of our agenda. Still, the time it takes to breed a new tree variety, even with the most modern approaches, will be longer than for vegetables or other annuals.
Has WCR identified any molecular/genetic markers of coffee quality? If so, what are some of those specific traits and how are they being measured?
At this time there are not molecular/genetic markers of quality that are being used in active breeding.
There is more 'visual diversity' in tomatoes today than 2 years ago, but 'ancient' tomatoes have more flesh, less water, more flavour than any variety seen in mainstream supermarkets. Is the WCR goal to make it easier to grow mainstream coffee like we grow 'new' tomatoes today?
The goal of WCR is to accelerate innovation in coffee agriculture. The particular traits that are targeted for a specific variety will depend on the needs of the end users – both consumers and farmers. We will be using a “demand-led” approach that consolidates the input of thousands of end users to design product profiles for breeding. The particular needs of end users will vary from place to place and depending on what market that farmers are selling to. The end result could mean some new “super specialty” varieties (a la Geisha), some new varieties that are great for mass market blends, new Robusta varieties, etc.
What do you see the role of Ethiopia being coffee biotechnology, regardless of the current politics with respect to access and collaboration? Are you making efforts?
Ethiopia is the birthplace of arabica coffee and the source of most of the genetic diversity available today. Today, the Ethiopians carefully control access to their genetic material because in the past so much of it was taken without compensation. WCR respects this stance, while at the same time remaining optimistic that one day systems of fair renumeration can be developed such that Ethiopia is able and willing to share their precious resources with the world. That said, there is much that Ethiopia can do to modernize their own breeding programs for the benefit of Ethiopian coffee farmers and those of us who love to drink Ethiopian coffees, and we would be very excited to collaborate with them in this effort when the time is right.
Variety data and availability
Are there any updates from the IMLVT trials? Any varieties that are showing promise across a wide range of altitudes/climates? (Thinking both agronomy and quality performance)
We are very eagerly working on the first analysis of harvest/production data and hope to release the first IMLVT global report in summer 2020! It will include the subset of trial sites for which there is harvest/production data available.
Is there any provision that WCR to supply new and good coffee varieties in other countries beyond their existing partner countries? If yes, how can a country or an organization can proceed to get such help?
WCR is a research organization and not a seed company, so we don’t supply coffee varieties. We have, e.g., through our IMLVT program, worked closely with country partners to arrange the introduction of some varieties into new countries for scientific evaluation purposed; but ultimately it is up to those countries (and the breeders of the varieties) which, if any, are released for farmers. Where countries or organizations are interested in accessing new varieties, we encourage you to check the WCR varieties catalog to see who the breeder of the variety is (this information is listed in each variety profile) and to engage directly with the breeder in conversations about access. If needed, WCR may be able to assist with breeder introductions.
Any research or particular focus in post-harvest improvements?
WCR does not currently work on post-harvest processing research. We have had many discussions about this over the years, but it has always been decided that this begins to enter “competitive” space and that we should focus our resources on precompetitive activities in breeding and agronomy.
80% CHG emissions generated at coffee mills come from the coffee pulp degradation in the open air. Where is WCR on the management of coffee processing residues?
See above; we currently do not engage in any research activities related to mills or post-harvest.
Women in coffee
What do you think about the role of women in the entire coffee production chain taking into account SDG 5?
Women make coffee happen. They provide the majority of the labor for coffee worldwide, and reap the minority of the benefit/value for coffee – this is through throughout the value chain. Women are also highly underrepresented in scientific fields. Within our own organization, we place a strong priority on recruiting and developing the careers of the women on our team, and our board of directors is actively working toward equity in gender representation. We know that women have different needs and constraints than men when it comes to coffee agriculture (for example: women are often responsible for weeding, therefore innovations that reduce the burden of this farm activity may be especially relevant and interesting to women, but if you ask a man what farm innovations he is most interested in, he may not mention weeding at all). Understanding that women and men generally have different responsibilities and different needs is critical for any research design that aims to produce innovations relevant for women.
Collaboration and participation in the research
WCR historically focused more on Arabica coffee, but recently has included Robusta. How do large scale coffee farmers get to participate in Robusta research?
Currently, our Robusta agenda is anchored in engaging a consortium of Robusta breeders and researchers to set priorities for Robusta research. Soon, there will be a need to expand our network of farmer field trials to include Robusta (e.g., as new varieties are developed, they will need to be tested directly in farmers’ fields), but this will likely take some time. In the meantime, we do plan to engage in a large survey of farmers to understand the most relevant targets for Robusta breeding and encourage you reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org to express interest in being part of this effort.
Comment: It would be of great value for WCR to develop an opening and better relationships to unify the coffee research efforts at CENICAFE, multiple Universities in Brazil, several countries in Africa, Nestle, etc.. There is a lot of research and knowledge on coffee that has already been done that needs to be shared and applied.
WCR works very closely with a wide array of research institutions around the world, in particular in Central America and East Africa (see a list of our partners here), but also with international institutions like CIRAD, CIAT, IITA, etc., and we actively engage with many private sector researchers from organizations like Nestle, Illy, Lavazza, etc. for both collaboration and information sharing. We have not historically collaborated closely with research institutions in Colombia, Brazil, or Vietnam because the value proposition of WCR is much lower in these countries, which have very robust R&D systems of their own in place. But we certainly look to them for learning, and openly share the results of our work with anyone who is interested.
How can one directly get involved in research as an intern or otherwise?
As a very small organization, we have extremely limited capacity to work with volunteers, although opportunities do arise from time to time. We also always post job opportunities on our website. You are welcome to email email@example.com regarding opportunities.
Hi! What languages do you currently translate your work?
Most of our research publications are available in both English and Spanish. Some additional publications, such as our annual report, are available in Korean and Japanese (and soon: Chinese!).
Engaging with consumers
Thank you for the valuable research and results! What message would you like the consumer to hear regarding the research? Are there key points we could use to help educate the consumers in the world?
Great question! Key points are that “science = sustainability” and “science = quality.” Research is what creates our knowledge of what the most sustainable practices are, creates conditions for economic prosperity (through improved production), and is a critical tool to deliver new and exciting flavor opportunities through breeding for quality. All that coffee is today is the result of someone’s research, somewhere. The coffee of tomorrow will depend on the research we do today.
Do you have any country by country coffee drinker consumer preference data?
No, our focus is on breeding/agronomy research. For consumer drinking preference data, you can look to coffee business associations like the Specialty Coffee Association (for specialty markets), the National Coffee Association (in the US), and others globally.