Can scientists develop a coffee bean more resistant to climate change? | FT Food Revolution
The world’s top coffee producing nations all lie at similar tropical latitudes, where even small rises in temperature are forecast to have severe consequences for people and agriculture. But as the FT’s Nic Fildes reports, in Australia scientists are tackling the problem by trying to develop a better, hardier coffee bean
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Thriving on rich volcanic soil and subtropical hills, these abundant trees are about as far as you can get from the traditional North African home of the arabica coffee bean.
You can even eat the sweet berry.
Yes, I like them.
Yet they could help safeguard a crop that has the world hooked.
How are you doing?
Welcome to the trail, huh?
I'm in northern New South Wales, home to a branch of Southern Cross University specialising in the study of agricultural production, soils, and genetics.
If you squish them open, you'll see that there's two coffee beans in there.
And right now, it's part of a pioneering international study which could give coffee growers new varieties and strategies to cope with climate change.
There's 23 countries participating, so we are one of the sites. What we do have is we have 25 different coffee varieties sourced from 11 countries from all over the world, a lot of African, a lot of South American things in here. And what we are doing is comparing those against each other and against the data that comes from all the other countries.
The project is being led by World Coffee Research, a nonprofit association of industry, government, and development groups. It was founded in 2012 to tackle what it describes as a serious threat to long-term supplies.
Are we trying to find a supervariety here? Or what's the genetics behind this?
The overarching aim of the trial, from a global perspective, is to find varieties that are robust and suitable in multiple environments. And that makes them a bit future climate-proof.
The world's top coffee producing nations are led by Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia, which together produce more than 2/3 of the global crop. They all lie at similar tropical latitudes, where even small rises in temperature are forecast to have severe consequences for people and agriculture. Yet research and development in coffee has lagged behind staple crops.
There's been a lot of investment into wheat and corn and rice research, but World Coffee Research didn't come up until about 10 years ago. In that respect, there's a lot of catching up to do for coffee R&D. And coffee R&D is not easy. Coffee, in itself, as a tree, it takes decades to produce new varieties.
Time is critical. Weather extremes have already had an impact on supply and cost. Drought and frost in Brazil, for example, were key factors in a 10-year-high spike in coffee prices in 2021. And a recent Stockholm Environment Institute study estimated that climate change could wipe out 45 per cent of arabica production worldwide.
Up to 70 per cent of global output is made up of arabica, which are the highest value, highest quality variety of coffee bean. Losses would be inconvenient for coffee drinkers, but potentially devastating to the estimated 125 million people whose livelihoods depend on coffee production, especially the 25 million small landholders who produce up to 80 per cent of the global crop.
You take our neighbours, Papua New Guinea, for example. They obviously need to grow food to survive on. But one of their biggest foreign income earners is coffee. And it's an opportunity for those countries, for developing nations, to actually have an influx of US dollars and actually drive some prosperity in these regions.
But there's another vested interest closer to home, in these temperate hills of eastern Australia. Local growers are hoping they'll also reap the benefits in the form of new high-yield varieties to revitalise a largely forgotten industry.
The coffee that was grown locally here from the 1880s through to the 1920s was of such a quality that it was winning awards back in Paris and London. The Australian coffee industry was successful until about the 1920s, when really the cost of labour became uncompetitive compared to most coffee-growing nations, where they have a lot lower cost of production due to cheap labour.
Sophisticated machinery has since replaced much of the manual labour required to harvest. But it turns out that the soil and climate here can be too good for established varieties.
The one advantage Australia has is that the country is free from some of the diseases that devastated crops in other parts of the world. However, the main issue is that the type of coffee plant grown here is too tall and too vigorous.
The main variety that we're growing here in New South Wales is one called K7. And what we found, after 10 years, they don't stop growing. So whilst the research showed that there would be a lovely productive tree from 5 to 10 years, what we found with experience is that they just keep wanting to grow into a leggy tree.
So once you have to start doing the trimming, you get into that cycle of losing coffee crops. So you lose productivity for two years. So we're really looking for smaller-stature trees that will grow under our conditions and not grow so tall and leggy.
As well as a more prolific semi-dwarf variety, Australian growers need to find more land. But here in northern New South Wales, local producers claim much of the best ground has already been snapped up by property developers and wealthy residents looking for an easy life rather than hard work on a farm.
The equipment needed to process and roast premium beans is also expensive. Despite its reputation for producing high-quality, complex-flavoured coffee, on a global scale, Australia's output is minuscule. There are only around 50 commercial producers.
We currently produce less than 0.05 per cent of all coffee, yet are some of the biggest consumers of coffee. We've also got wonderful advantages here in Australia. I mean, we've got an incredible climate. And we've got the chance for displacement of imported product. And there's a real opportunity to take advantage of that.
The Australian government is backing the trial and other coffee research with several million dollars in funding. But the island continent also enforces some of the most strict quarantine regulations in the world, meaning local growers will have to wait before any new varieties are released for wider cultivation.
We really have those strong biosecurity considerations in Australia. So you don't just bring in new varieties as a commercial grower. You wait for the Department of Agriculture and the Southern Cross Uni to do these research opportunities.
But for the world's biggest producers, the need for superior varieties is perhaps more urgent. If the international trial succeeds in identifying the hardiest, most productive plants, it could be a lifeline for growers, cafes, and countless consumers who can rely on their daily dose of coffee.