It’s no secret new coffee varieties are needed. Global temperatures are warming, weather patterns are changing, and threats from pests and disease grow. As demand for coffee increases, the land available to grow arabica is expected to decrease dramatically—and the process to introduce new varieties can’t keep up. A new coffee tree takes two-to-three years to mature, and breeding a new variety of coffee can take 20-plus years to get all the way to market.
But, there’s hope in F1 (first-generation) hybrids. In plant breeding, F1 hybrids are desirable because they exhibit heterosis, or hybrid vigor. Generally, the greater the genetic distance between two parents of a hybrid offspring, the more vigorous the child will be (in coffee breeding, “vigorous” often translates to productivity, uniformity, and better vegetative growth).
World Coffee Research and others have been working to use hybrid vigor to coffee’s advantage., An exhaustive study of the genetic diversity of 826 arabica plants enabled WCR to identify how genetically different the plants are from one another so that plants with high levels of distance are mated together to maximize hybrid vigor. With this information, WCR’s breeding team partners with various coffee-producing regions with local breeders to determine desirable qualities for new varieties, helping inform the selection of parent plants for hybrid crosses.
The result of all this? The creation of a whole new class of coffee varieties, which show immense promise in assuring a future for coffee in the face of increasing industry challenges.
What are F1 hybrids?
F1 hybrids are a new group of varieties created by crossing genetically distinct arabica parents and using the first-generation offspring. The handful of F1 hybrid varieties in existence have all been developed in the last 10 years, and only recently become commercially available to farmers.
How are F1 hybrids different than other hybrids (e.g. pacamara, a cross between pacas and maragogype)?
Hybrid is a broad term, often used to describe varieties like pacamara, which have been created by crossing two different varieties. However, F1 hybrids specifically refer to the first generation result of the parents’ breeding. To produce a “copy” of that F1 (to mass produce the plant) requires either a re-cross of the two parent plants, which is very labor intensive, or cloning in an advanced nursery with a tissue lab. Using seed from an F1 plant gives an F2—or second generation—plant, and leads to “unstable” F2 offspring (meaning they don’t perform the same as the F1 parent—typically with losses in yield, quality, overall vigor and other factors). Using seed from F1 hybrid plants can therefore be very risky for farmers.
What is the significance of these varieties?
In the past, plants bred to withstand harsh weather conditions or resist pest attacks have suffered in one way or another: reduced yield, poor cup quality, etc. The hybrid coffee varieties have the potential to combine traits that matter most to farmers—higher yields and disease resistance—with the trait that matters most to consumers—taste. F1 hybrids also tend to have higher production than non-hybrids (22–47 percent higher yields for one F1 hybrid, called centroamericano) without compromising cup quality or disease resistance.
If hybrids are so great, why aren’t we seeing widespread use by producers?
As noted above, F1 hybrids are an entirely new type of variety; as they become more widely known it’s expected that use will grow. And F1 hybrids currently can only be produced by technically sophisticated nurseries, which limits access for farmers. (This control is crucial: due to the rules of genetics and how traits are passed from generation to generation in breeding, it’s vital that F1 hybrids are only purchased from trusted nurseries.)
What is the outlook for the accessibility of F1 hybrids?
The outlook is promising. Starmaya is an F1 hybrid (with very desirable traits, both at farm level and in the final cup) that can be seed propagated, meaning that parent plants can breed naturally, without the use of high-tech nurseries.