F1 Hybrid Trials
I am 100% certain that the future of coffee depends on hybrids’ success. —William Solano, CATIE
Because coffee is a tree crop that takes 2-3 years to mature, breeding new varieties of coffee has traditionally been a slow process. It can take 20 or more years to bring a new variety to market.
But we know that new varieties are needed, and needed quickly, to meet the challenges of the 21st century—changing weather patterns, increased temperatures, and new disease and insect prevalence. The land available to grow Arabica coffee is also expected to dramatically shrink in coming years, meaning coffee trees must become more productive to meet increasing demand. Without better planting material, the coffee industry faces a potentially disastrous decline in Arabica supply in the coming decades. In it's breeding program, WCR is focusing on a new class of coffee varieties, called F1 hybrids, to address these pressing challenges.
While F1 hybrid varieties are still relatively new to coffee farmers and industry, it is difficult to imagine a future without them. The “low-hanging fruit” in coffee breeding is the concept of heterosis, or hybrid vigor. One of the key distinguishing features of F1 hybrids is their high vigor, which can translate into everything from higher yields, to wider climate adaptability, to resilience in the face of stresses like disease (e.g., coffee rust), frost, or drought.
In new regional breeding hubs, World Coffee Research and its partners are preparing the next generation of F1 hybrid varieties, aiming to release locally adapted selections for farmers in Central America and Africa by 2025. Researchers will evaluate and select the best-performing crosses, focusing on key traits of interest identified by local breeders and experts. Priority targets include:
- Disease resistance/tolerance
- Aromatic quality
- Traits linked to climate resilience
- Traits linked to harvest (e.g., uniform ripening time)
- Traits linked to production efficiency (e.g., dwarf/tall)
- Tolerance to abiotic stresses (drought, heat, light, cold)
- Fertilizer efficiency
Currently in Central America, three groups of crosses (totaling 54 crosses) have been made. Plants from the first wave of 46 crosses were transferred to the field in 2017, where they are being observed for performance, including rust resistance and drought tolerance. The plants are also being shipped to Rwanda for testing in East Africa. More crosses will be made through regional breeding hubs in Central America and Africa in the coming years.
- 54: Number of hybrid crosses made to date
- 4: Number of complex hybrid crosses (cross made between an F1 hybrid and an inbred line) made to date
- 3: Number of countries where new hybrids are being tested in the field (El Salvador, Costa Rica, Rwanda)
- 3: Number of different altitudes (900, 1,100 and 1,500 m) where hybrids are being grown for eventual cup quality evaluations in 2019
WCR's F1 hybrids program experienced a milestone in 2019 with our first production harvest (see the update "Hybrid harvest" below for more information). The yield and quality data from the 2019 harvest will allow us to remove low-performing candidates from the trial. But by itself, data from the first harvest is not a reliable predictor of lifetime performance, so the plants will be carefully monitored through three to four more harvests, and compared with data from the same plants located in different environments, to ensure that performance is consistent before final selections are made on which varieties can be released for farmers through a collaborative breeding hub serving Central America.
Using new breeding tools like the WCR Core Collection and Arabica genetic distance matrix, we can accelerate the creation of high-performing F1 hybrid varieties for farmers. WCR will be able to test F1 crosses initiated in 2015 through 2018-2020, bringing better varieties to market in as few as five years.
Learn more about F1 hybrids
What does "F1 hybrid" mean? F1 hybrid varieties are created by crossing genetically distinct parents (for example, a wild Ethiopian variety x Caturra). The offspring of the cross are first-generation (F1) hybrids. F1 hybrids are notable because they tend to have significantly higher production than non-hybrids, while maintaining high cup quality and disease resistance.
- The accident that led to the discovery of climate-change-proof coffee [MIT Technology Review]
- F1 Hybrid Variety Scores 90 Points in Cup of Excellence [Barista Magazine]
- F1 hybrids [Fresh Cup Coffee Encyclopedia]