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Talking Challenges and Opportunities in Canephora with WCR

Recently we caught up with World Coffee Research’s Hanna Neuschwander for coffee and a chat. There’s been a lot going on with Coffea Canephora (commonly known as robusta) recently so DRW’s social media whizz Hriday Gupta and Canephora proponent Jamie Treby took time with Hanna to delve much deeper into Robusta, the current situation with research, and what challenges lie ahead. Grab a coffee, close the door and settle down for this long read.

DRW: Are there any research projects in Robusta that you are particularly excited about and believe will have a significant impact on the industry?

Hanna Neuschwander: There is this resurgence of interest in Robusta right now, which is so exciting. But you know, research with tree crops is a long-term prospect, and this is coming on the heels of decades of underinvestment in Robusta research.

In terms of commercial experience with the crop—it is much less than Arabica. Farmers have been experimenting with Arabica in their fields for 500 years. For Robusta, it’s more like a century that we’ve been really actively growing and commercially trading it. That’s five times less experience with the crop!

Robusta has grown tremendously in the 100 years. Even just 30 years ago it was about 20-25% of the market and now it’s 40%. We don’t see any indications that that trajectory is going to change or slow down. So Robusta is increasingly important and we need commensurate agricultural research to be supporting or understanding of the crop and how it can work and should work going forward.

At World Coffee Research we are really excited about the potential to breed with Robusta, to improve the plant enhancing its performance, its tolerance to climate variability and stressors like drought and diseases and pests and things like that. We think of Robusta as being very robust, but actually very little breeding has happened with the crop over those 100 years when you compare it with what we’ve done with Arabica, and even Arabica is very little when you compare with other crops.

The good part of that is there’s a lot of room to improve and there are countries and breeding programmes that have focused on Robusta over the last couple of decades. But there’s so much room to do more. We are excited to be exploring the possibility of launching a global Robusta breeding programme with partners around the world to increase the pace of improvement, bringing new germplasm together and testing it in environments where maybe it hasn’t been tested before, and using a collaborative model to make faster progress.

Our little corner of the universe focuses on varieties and on genetics, but there are all sorts of other research that needs to be done and hopefully will be done. I think there’s tremendous potential for looking at and increasing Robusta quality, but also understanding what its unique qualities are, how it might be used in new kinds of product formulations, and capturing some of the inherent value that it has that maybe hasn’t been fully explored yet.

The 500 year/100 year things blows our mind! When you think of how Arabica has changed in the 50 years or so since the phrase specialty coffee was coined in the 1970’s and where that is now, and that that is 5 times further ahead than Robusta, it’s exciting to think about what might be coming up. Is there any other product with respect to genetic variation that has had a similar gap?

There’s a pretty famous example in bananas. The majority of banana cultivation was just one variety, called the Gros Michel. And it was very highly susceptible to disease, and it was almost completely wiped out in the 1950s and, unfortunately has been replaced by basically another single variety called the Cavendish – and now it too is being wiped out. When a cultivated crop relies on a very narrow genetic base, it becomes very vulnerable.

Cavendish Bananas

Robusta itself is an interesting example. One-hundred years ago, the world grew Arabica almost exclusively. Our relationship as humans to this plant was marching along very successfully over the years. It was only under new strains and stresses where Arabica was starting to fail in some places because of the pressure from coffee leaf rust. Then we were able to look around and see “OK, well, here’s this other type of coffee plant that’s growing and it seems to not be affected in the same way, let’s try that out on some coffee farms”. And ultimately, that’s how Robusta came to be commercialised. Recognising that it had different characteristics than Arabica and was not susceptible to some of the same disease pressures that Arabica was facing. We’re in a similar moment now with climate change. I think recognising that there are some really significant pressures on the plant and we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing.

Could you elaborate on any specific research and development initiatives aimed at improving Robusta’s cup quality and marketability in the specialty coffee segment?

Where I think research is happening on differentiating Robusta, its marketability and its different qualities, is within companies. If you’re a big coffee roaster, you probably have an R&D team that works on product development and that works on all this stuff.

Larger companies that either source a lot of Robusta or are maybe increasingly looking at Robusta as an option for their sourcing as they face sourcing challenges with Arabica are doing a lot to understand consumer acceptance of Robusta. How can it be used in blends or as a standalone product? That product development is where I think you see a lot of the quality-based research happening.

You also have farmer-researchers looking at this, setting up little experiments on their farms to figure out: “Can I get a better-quality product if I grow Robusta with the same attention and care you’d give to arabica?” It’s a different plant. It needs different things. So what does it need to really maximise its potential?

Any kind of research involves a certain amount of risk. You don’t know the answer to your question at the beginning, right? But it’s through these kinds of investigation that I think we’re starting to see some shifting and perception around what Robusta can be.

There’s also the pioneering work of the Uganda Coffee Development Authority and CQI (Coffee Quality Institute) that helped develop the R programme, which is not research in the strict academic sense but was a new way of setting standards. What even is fine Robusta? Can this thing exist?

All that work has been happening over many, many years, but quietly. I think what’s changed just in the last couple of years is much broader awareness and acceptance of the fact that Fine Robusta or Quality Robusta or Specialty Robusta, whatever you want to call it, is possible. It has a place in the market and increasing differentiation from what we used to just think of as like one thing, big mass-market Robusta, its filler, or it goes into soluble and it doesn’t have any special unique characteristics worth higher value.

It’s been a slow shift, but change has sped up over the last couple of years—and it’s based on a lot of people’s effort.

We remember from when we’ve talked before, you were saying it’s like design based with an end goal in mind rather than I guess just playing and seeing what you get.

There are two ways that you get something new in the world, right? One is you just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. You don’t know the answer when you start. But the other way is: You do know. You know what you’re trying to achieve, and you specifically design for that. And so, when we think about what the potential is with Robusta breeding, it could be creating new varieties of this species that will have higher cup quality. One reason why we have lower quality Robusta, or why we associate Robusta with lower quality, is just because no one was trying to make it better. Both on the breeding side—we weren’t breeding for quality, so naturally we didn’t get it—but also on the processing and quality control side. We were not removing defective coffee. If you just take out the bad stuff, the stuff that’s left over tastes better.

That trend toward differentiation and thinking about “Can this be better than it was before? What would it take? Is it worth the cost to do that all of this?” is the kind of thinking and experimenting and playing that’s been happening recently. And I think it’s really exciting with breeding.

Breeding is very often a design process. What is our goal with developing a new variety? Is it just to increase yield? Is it just increase yield in certain environmental conditions? Is it disease resistance and tolerance. Is it cup quality? The cool thing about breeding is that you don’t only have to choose one target, you can layer multiple targets. You’re not always necessarily going to succeed in what you set out to achieve, but you can certainly try, and you can make choices to narrow down the plants that you’re working with based on the ones that are meeting your targets. By saying “hey, it matters what it tastes like”, you can make it taste better.

I think so! With producing new varieties or seeds or anything else, is that the same as Arabica, in that it takes longer? You know, it takes a certain amount of time. 20-30 years is often the figure they say that Arabica takes but is that the same?

Yes. Coffee is a tree crop. At the most basic biological level the amount of time it takes to breed is related to how long it takes the plant to produce its offspring. In creating any new variety, you are concerned with carrying traits through generations—so that the next generation looks and acts like the one before it. There’s continuity and stability in the performance of the plant.

In both Robusta and Arabica you have a multi-year maturation process. From the time you plant a little baby seed to when it grows up and can produce its first fruit is a couple of years. And in order for a variety to become stabilized, it usually takes multiple generations. So, for inbred seed-propagated varieties, you’re starting to talk about upwards of two decades from the time you start to the time the variety is farmer-ready.

That said, there are things that you can do to try to accelerate the breeding process. For example, you can grow little baby plants in warm, humid environments that pushes growth faster. You don’t want to do your breeding programme at 2000 meters in a cool dry place that is going to be the best for cup quality if you want to cycle through as multiple breeding lines as fast as possible. You can shorten the seed–to–seed time a little bit to shave a bit of time off the breeding process.

So there’s boundaries.

Yeah, there’s boundaries. Exactly. It takes a really long time! Another shortcut is using F1 hybrids, which means that you can release them after the first generation of making the cross.

They don’t have to become stable, seed reproducible varieties, but you have to have a whole infrastructure for getting those kinds of plants out to farmers because you can’t distribute them as seeds. You have to clone the plants. There are entire agricultural industries that are completely built on that model. It’s absolutely doable. It’s just not what has been historically the norm in coffee. It takes infrastructure, it takes knowledge, it takes training, and it takes investment.

That’s an interesting point actually. You can only work with what you’ve already got or you have to build in the time scales to completely rebuild something new.

Yeah, and different places have different approaches. For example in Vietnam, which is the world’s largest producer of Robusta, most of the Robusta varieties that have been released out of Vietnam’s breeding programme are distributed through seed. That’s a choice that the breeding programme there has made for all sorts of reasons. In Brazil, which is the second largest producer of Robusta in the world, they tend more toward the clonal propagation approach and so they clone the trees and sell cloned seedlings to farmers.

What does that mean in Brazil? Are they truer to type for varietals because they clone?

Kind of. There are these types of varieties called composite varieties or polyclonal varieties. In Vietnam for example they have a couple of these where the seed that gets distributed is an intentional mix. Robusta is an out-crossing species, which means that in order to get fruit set (e.g., cherries to harvest), you need more than one type of variety in the field. In Brazil, they just plant multiple different fixed clonal lines, usually a minimum of two to three types—so you would have like a row of clone one and then a row of clone two and a row of clone three, and then another row of clone one—to increase the seed set. You’re getting those cloned seedlings, you know they’re clonally propagated, you’re getting them as seedlings and that’s the approach with clones.

Maybe in Vietnam, you’re getting a seed packet that’s got a mix very similar, but you’re growing it from seed or nurseries growing from seed, and you’re planting those plants in a more intermixed way. So you may not know that plant one is clone one and plant two is clone 3, but they’re all in there mixed together.

This is a crazy concept to visualize. Whenever I go back and think about it, it’s like just hang on – I’m not sure I’ve got all this, but I do love that. It does make sense. I see it’s just so different from what gets taught or talked about in Arabica, where it’s all this sort of laser focus on “what’s the varietal?” and it’s just this and then that’s the single varietal, that’s the best. Robusta’s quite different in that respect.

There is a little kind of crossover there though, so for example Ruiru 11, which is an Arabica variety developed and grown primarily in Kenya, it’s a little bit similar to that polyclonal variety. They call it a composite variety. It’s a little different, but it is basically a mix of types that goes out in a package of seed.

They do that for various reasons, but it it’s kind of a resilience approach. If a disease comes through, if you’ve got a mix of types maybe some of the plants do a little better than others. You keep your stability there.

In Robusta it is a little different. You have to have that mix of types, otherwise you won’t get a seed set, so it comes from a different need and place. But the breeding approach can look kind of similar.

Got you. So slightly like behavioural drivers, but for agronomists. I love that. You mentioned using F1 hybrids as a shortcut, but for those that have no idea what that means, could you please explain?

F1 is just a technical term, an acronym, that stands for “first filial generation.” What that means is if you start two different plants that are genetically different, and then cross them together the offspring of that crossing—in other words, the results of the sexual reproduction of those two plants—the baby plant that results,which is the first filial generation, will have a mix of the genetics of the two parents. If you take that seed and grow it up into a new plant, that is the F1 plant. When intentionally bred, F1 hybrids can be really high performing plants. It’s a shortcut because you don’t have to stabilize the seed – in fact, you can’t. You just start propagating plants of the F1 generation through cuttings or using biotechnology to generate copies. For stabilize an inbred, seed propagated variety, you might need 25-30 years of selection. For an F1 variety, you might be able to get to your final selections in half that time or less.

Why can’t you use the seed? So let’s say now you have this new plant and it’s just awesome in the field. A typical farmer is going to want to save the seed from that plant, because it looks so good, to make more baby plants. But here’s the rub— if you took 100 seeds from that F1 plant and planted them and you have this nice new field with F2 plants (the second generation), they will not look and behave like the mother plant. A few plants will look great, a few will look truly awful, and most will be somewhere in between – but overall, they will not look anything like that beautiful F1 mother plant — you’ll just have a huge messy field full of variation. That’s called segregation.

If you want to replicate the performance of that F1 (which often is very good because you’ve chosen the parent’s carefully and you get a hybrid vigour from this first generation cross), then you have to clone the F1 mother plant. You actually replicate the exact genetics by taking cuttings, or using biotechnology to generate genetic copies. You can’t take the seed because you’ll get segregation.

F1 hybrid can represent time savings in the breeding process, you have to have a way to mass replicate those first-generation plants.

Not every country in the world has that capacity. There are some producing countries that don’t have any labs that do F1 propagation for coffee. There are others that do and it’s becoming more common to some degree, especially in Latin America, where a number of F1s have been released.

Green cherries on an F1 Hybrid. Picture Credit: Devon Barker (@devonbbarker)

Recently WCR spoke about gaining access to material from CIRAD, (the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) for potential Robusta breeding. Why is germplasm difficult to access? And what is germplasm?

Germplasm is basically just a fancy word for plant material. Different genetics, right? So if you were to walk through an ancient forest, let’s say we’re walking through a wild coffee forest in Ethiopia, every individual plant that you pass is going to be somewhat genetically unique from the other.

In a commercial farming situation, we have generally selected specific offspring of plants, or we’ve intentionally created them through the breeding process, and we’ve created some uniformity and we call those uniform, predictable plants “varieties.” A variety should perform the same generation to generation—in other words, it’s stable.

But out in the wild you have all this genetic diversity. So germplasm is basically just a fancy word for genetic material that has unique characteristics.

IMLVT site at the Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB). From the left to the right: Stanislas Mushimiyimana (RAB imlvt supervisor), Solene Pruvot (WCR project leader imlvt), Simon Martin (RAB imlvt coordinator in Rwanda) and Egide Mutabazi (RAB technician of imlvt trials)

Germplasm is the basis of all breeding, and in the end, of all agriculture. For hundreds of years, we have had humans picking up a plant, putting it on a ship, taking it somewhere new and trying to make a lot of money from it—economic botany. That system prevailed for years. The underlying principle was that all of this plant material is the common resource of humanity, that everybody owns everything equally, and we can all just do whatever we want with it.

It sounds lovely. The problem is that people, governments, and multinational companies have made enormous fortunes from plants, but very often the places where those materials originated never saw any of that economic benefit. This is often referred to as biopiracy. And so in 1992, the world came together and agreed on something called the Nagoya Protocol, which shifted the principle from everything is commonly owned by humankind to these resources are national assets. They belong to countries. Today, you can’t just walk into a forest in Ethiopia, take a coffee seed and go grow it wherever you want. Ethiopia owns it, and they have to give you permission to use it.

Because germplasm is the raw material of any breeding program, one of the biggest challenges that any breeding programme has—no matter what crop or animal species—is accessing germplasm. Especially new germplasm bringing in new diversity that maybe hasn’t been utilised before. There are very particular rules that govern this, which have been hammered out by the international community. You can’t just take whatever you want and use it however you want. If you want to access germplasm, you have to follow these international rules, which are designed to give the owners of these materials some benefit.

It can be extremely political, but the salient thing is: You can’t just do whatever you want. That said, there is a lot of material that moved around the world prior to the Nagoya Protocol being implemented in 1992 and so different breeding programmes around the world do have different things already in their collections that they’re able to work with. By and large, most actors are trying to do the right thing.

I guess you don’t know whether the variety that you took from this country is the one that’s going to be commercially successful, but you might have learned a lot off the back of it. So how do you price knowledge?

So, there’s a lot of factors that go into this that can make it difficult to move forward. Some countries have very shrewd and capable negotiators, while other countries don’t have as much expertise and there literally isn’t anyone you can negotiate with. Or, you might have a country with a lot of really incredible germplasm that has been locked in war for 20 years and, again—if there is no functional government, who are you negotiating with? Nobody. It’s challenging, but there is also a lot of great stuff that is accessible and that breeders can work with.

Having an agreement with CIRAD then explains it’s a big headache that’s now gone. You’ve got an agreement. You’ve got extra access to extra stuff and don’t have to work out who’s negotiating for what.

There is so much we can do with what we have access to. It’s a matter of effort and investment. Historically, we haven’t put a lot of actual effort, money, expertise, PhD’s, etc. into Robusta breeding as as a global industry. But that is changing and the potential is enormous.

Are there any species challenges that Robusta brings to varietal development?

The big difference between Arabica and Robusta is the fact that Arabica is autogamous, Robusta is allogamous. Arabica self-pollinates, is asexual pollination. The pollen from a flower on a single arabica tree, can then float down to another flower on the same tree, and you can get a cherry from that. In Robusta that doesn’t work. You have to have pollen from a different type of tree come pollinate the flower on the mother in order to get cherry set. So that’s a significant difference. The other really significant difference at the genetic level is that Robusta is a diploid species and Arabica is a tetraploid species – that’s its ploidy level. From a breeding perspective, that makes Robusta a little easier to work with.

It’s very hard to cross species that have different ploidy levels. If you’re trying to make an interspecific cross, if you’re trying to cross Arabica with Robusta it’s really hard because they have different ploidy levels. There is stuff you can do to make it possible, using biotechnology, buts it is really, really hard. You might make 100 crosses and one might work. Whereas if you have two diploid species – like Robusta and Liberica—you can cross them more easily. More wild coffee species are diploid than are tetraploid. So it’s easier to cross Robusta with Eugenoides or other species because they are diploids.

Genetic diversity of coffee

Farming-wise, too, Robusta is just different than Arabica. It requires different management, different approaches to farming. This idea that we’re just going to switch all our Arabica production to Robusta— it’s not quite that straight forward. It takes different knowledge. It takes different farming techniques and approaches. It grows in different environments and it’s not easy to just swap one for the other.

The predominant trend hasn’t been Robusta replacing Arabica, it’s been adding Robusta into different areas, such as more low-lying areas or other places where Arabica isn’t able to grow as well.

How does that work then? Obviously, World Coffee Research requires funding, this isn’t all for free. Are there bigger challenges to the results like we touched on earlier; if you design typically with funding, there’s an outcome that’s envisaged but then is that harder to achieve with Robusta? Is that part more of a challenge to fund? How do you approach it?

Arabica and Robusta present different challenges, but there are technical solutions for these challenges.. Robusta isn’t better or worse or less likely to succeed. I think that the main difference is just that there’s less of a scaffolding for Robusta because we’ve done more research in Arabica, so there is more of a foundation there.

But the basic building blocks and tools that a breeding programme needs—they’re not so different for these two species.

We can make a lot of progress in Robusta just by trying and using some of the shared tools that we’re also developing for Arabica. For example, genotyping technologies that help us be more efficient and make our breeding programmes faster, better, cheaper; again, these tools are not so different. The technologies we you need already exist.

Genotyping (WCR)

The funding question is a good one, but I would say it applies equally to Arabica and Robusta. It takes a long time and the results are not certain. It’s research, and in any research development process you have the pie in the sky stuff that’s a little bit riskier and you don’t know. That’s not the kind of research we focus on. We focus more on product development type research. We are aiming, with our partners’ national breeding programmes in coffee producing countries, to release varieties. Those are products, right? So it’s a little bit closer to the ground.

We can’t always be sure if we make 100 crosses that one of them is going to be a superstar. There’s no guarantees there, but it’s likely if you make 100 crosses with great parent material, and you’ve got your scientific tools underpinning it, it’s likely you’re going to get something that’s better than what you have now. But you do still have to validate that and it does still take a long time.

The breeding process is a decadal process. Most companies have to think about their finances on a quarterly or annual basis—there is a absolutely a mismatch between the timelines for this kind of research and development and what most companies are functioning with. That is a real challenge.

At the same time, it is incredible to me how much we have seen companies leaning into and learning what these timelines are and recognising that this is basically just a necessary part of any agricultural endeavour. You need sun, you need rain, and you need research. With climate change, we need the plant to function differently than it has in the past, and we need more options for farmers. This is not “nice to have”—it’s an essential foundation for our entire sector. It’s not the only thing that creates a sustainable agricultural economy for coffee—but it is certainly required. It’s heartening to see companies leaning in, but we recognize it’s a challenge for any company to commit to something that long term.

Part of our job as an organisation is to continually produce as much value as we can. Even though the actual most important deliverables—new varieties in farmers’ fields—take a long time, there are other, incremental activities we can also focus on to producer shorter-term results. Things like the variety catalogue, right? We didn’t create any of the varieties in our catalogue, but we consolidated knowledge and information and made it accessible to people all over the world to help farmers make better decisions about what they might be able to plant in their field today. That’s been an incredibly valuable resource for the industry. It’s been viewed over a million times, from every country on Earth.

Arabica and Robusta Coffee Varieties Poster

You brought out the robusta catalogue quite recently. Have you had a chance to have any actual feedback from the farmers? Who normally uses it? Is it practical?

Variety catalogue users are a huge mix: roasters, technicians, farmers. The Robusta catalogue is still so new, we don’t have a lot of direct feedback from users yet, but it has been accessed already by 33,000 people since it launched six months ago, so we know people are finding it.

That’s great!

Thank you so much to Hanna for taking the time to talk with us. If you want to learn more about the work that World Coffee Research do, you can see a couple of handy links below.