Current coffee varieties were created for 20th century coffee sector. We already have significant evidence that they will not tolerate the environmental threats of the 21st century—changing weather patterns, increased temperatures, and new disease and insect prevalence. This creates a potentially disastrous decline in supply in the coming decades. Additionally, prior breeding efforts largely failed to take cup quality into account.
Building the next generation of coffee varieties and sustaining the industry’s genetic resources and breeding pools is a major, cross-cutting initiative too big for an individual institute to undertake. By drawing on the latest breakthroughs in coffee genetics and working in collaboration with individual country breeding programs, WCR is accelerating the creation of coffee varieties to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The cornerstone of WCR’s strategy is the creation of a network of regional breeding hubs that countries, research institutes, and private sector partners can utilize to accelerate the pace of coffee genetic improvement. Hubs have a collaborative design and governance among participating partners, and are coordinated locally by a host institution. To each hub, World Coffee Research contributes the results of advance research, including:
- Genes and molecular markers to accelerate molecular breeding approaches (cutting in half the time to create new crosses)
- Training for local breeders on advanced breeding techniques
- Improved breeding populations, including the WCR Core Collection, 100 genetically diverse C. arabica plants that can be used to develop new high-performing hybrid varieties that combine maximum genetic diversity with high performance (new plants in five years)
- All these programs are underpinned by the WCR Sensory program that ensures the highest cup quality through early generation and parental screening.
Participants to each hub bring their own locally available, top-performing plant material and, using the above, create crosses that are adapted to the local requirements. Priority targets include:
- Disease resistance/tolerance
- Cup 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
Participants take progeny from crosses back to their home countries to do local field selection. Participants may also send promising candidate varieties into World Coffee Research’s global International Multilocation Variety Trial (40+ sites in 27 countries).
Longer-term projects might include the creation of enhanced Arabicas that combine the best characteristics of Arabica and Robusta in one plant; the new plants will have novel genetic diversity that can be used in breeding programs to unlock resilience traits and deliver extremely high quality .
The coffee industry cannot single-handedly reverse climate change. Our best hope for sustaining the supply of high quality coffee in the 21st century is to focus on making the coffee plant more resilient. The creation of new, highly adaptable varieties, supported by a vibrant new seed sector, will result in major global productivity and quality gains in the next 10-20 years.