Christophe Montagnon is the scientific director for World Coffee Research. He chatted with us about some of the projects WCR has been working on over the last year and what’s upcoming for 2017.
This interview has been edited for clarity and space.
Tell me about some of the highlights for WCR in 2016? Any projects or developments you are particularly proud of?
There are so many things! We published the first-ever catalog of coffee varieties for Mezoamerica and the Caribbean (one for Africa is on the way in 2017); we also published a technical manual for controlling coffee leaf rust. We launched a global coffee monitoring program that will grow to have hundreds of sites across the world; we added three new countries to our International Multilocation Variety Trial (IMLVT), which also won the SCAA’s Sustainability Award this year. We also produced the first baby coffee plants in our global F1 hybrid coffee breeding program.
The Sensory Lexicon was released at the beginning of 2016. How has that informed the work of WCR over the course of the year?
We are actively using the Lexicon to evaluate coffee in our research programs. For example, one of the PhD students working with us, Fabian Echavarria, is looking at the complex interactions between coffee leaf rust, plant yield, and quality, using the Lexicon to evaluate whether yield and rust infections impact flavor and whether those impacts can be tied back to molecular and genetic-level changes in the plant. We will use the Lexicon for similar evaluations in our breeding work and in the IMLVT over time.
WCR works on a multitude of initiatives. Were there any projects or focus areas that gained notable traction in 2016?
I think people are really beginning to understand that climate change is a threat to the very future of coffee. Scientists have been discussing this for four or five years. But this was the year that the industry really began discussing it and taking it seriously.
What are some of the ways coffee professionals can support WCR?
The biggest way, I hate to say it because it’s what everyone says, but the biggest way is to support us financially. The work we do, because it’s research, has to be done in labs or other carefully controlled environments—it’s not so easy to just go out and do the work we are doing. So, we need the coffee industry to support the work. Through our Check-Off program, roasters can contribute half a penny per pound of green coffee bought through participating importers. Or, anyone can donate any amount through our website.
Looking to 2017, what are some of the goals for WCR—in the lab, in the field, and in the cup?
We will be doing a lot more work in the field, and many of the projects we have spent the last four years building will be giving us results. For example, we have spent four years implementing our IMLVT in twenty-two countries—it’s the largest global collaborative trial in coffee ever—and in 2017 we will start to see results of how coffee varieties are performing differently in different locations.
Tell me more about the timeline of the IMLVT project and hope for its outcomes.
From 2012 to 2014, we were building the infrastructure of the program, getting agreement from countries to participate and to share their coffee varieties. Beginning in 2014, seeds of the thirty-five varieties were shipped from donor countries to an in vitro tissue culture lab in Florida, so that disease-free in vitro plantlets could be safely sent to participating countries. In 2016, over 50,000 plantlets had been shipped to sixteen of the twenty-two participating countries and grown in nurseries; now, nearly all of the countries have transferred the plants from the nursery to the field. From here, the trial will run in perpetuity, as long as national institutions are able to maintain funding to support their experimental sites. We will look at the results over many years to come to try to unlock some of the mysteries of how coffee grows and thrives.
What are some of the other areas WCR hopes to impact in the coming year?
We will also be installing dozens or even hundreds of small trial sites on working coffee farms across the world for our Global Coffee Monitoring Platform, which will evaluate how different coffee varieties and soil nutrition approaches impact farmer profitability. With Crop Trust, we will launch our strategy for protecting coffee genetic resources around the world, which are essential for the future of coffee breeding. And we will continue to work to get better information about coffee varieties to farmers by expanding our coffee catalog to include Africa, and to expand access to healthy and genetically pure coffee plants through the expansion of our Verified program. Our breeding work will continue and accelerate as we begin working on “arabusta” coffees—new (non-GMO) varieties that combine traits from arabica and robusta plants.
Along that same line of thought, can you talk about some of the challenges coffee faces in the short term and the long term?
In the short term, the problems are familiar: in any given season in any given place, farmers routinely face lack of profitability due to price volatility, diseases and pests, droughts or other extreme weather, difficulty finding labor to pick the coffee, and the list goes on. Long term the challenges are similar, but they stretch out and magnify—extreme weather becomes more common, overall temperatures rise leading to loss of quality/quantity of coffee, diseases and pests become more problematic, chronic lack of profitability forces farmers out of farming. I think we are looking at a dire situation for coffee. In a few decades, or even less, there will be less land suitable for growing coffee, and fewer people willing to do the work unless we can change the dynamic.
—Ellie Bradley is Fresh Cup‘s editor.