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Why agronomic research and development is key to the survival of the coffee industry

Today we interview Greg from World Coffee Research (WCR) about why coffee farming is not profitable for so many farmers and about exciting WCR research to help coffee farmers become more productive and knowledgeable about the coffee they grow.

For those people who aren’t aware of what World Coffee Research do can you give a bit of a summary as to why it was started and the aims of the organisation?

The broad objective of the World Coffee Research membership base is to make coffee farming a profitable, economically and environmentally sustainable activity around the world for producers both large and small. In 2011 a relatively small group of roasters in the US, UK, and Italy committed $5 million dollars over five years ($1 million/yr.) to get the effort started. Now in our 7th year, the annual budget is $5.5 million and is one of the most inclusive, pre-competitive, open-source, multi stakeholder initiatives in the “sustainability industry.” The strategy to achieve this goal can be summed up in the following term: Agronomic Coffee Research and Development.

So coffee is at risk – why is this and what are the environmental and historical causes of this?

A quick comment about the phrase: “coffee is at risk.” What is at risk here are coffee producers. Coffee will always be around, most likely in greater and greater quantities every year. But our best estimates tell us that the production growth will not keep pace with demand, and many of our most cherished coffee origins may be forced to abandon coffee farming because it is not profitable.

Why is coffee not profitable for so many?

Currently, the industry has put the focus on the commodity price of Arabica, which has been at a dollar/lb or less for quite some time. This is a pattern that has been repeated several times in the last 30+ years. Something I heard once rings true for me: “There’s nothing like low prices to fix the problem of low prices.” Farmers have almost no tools to mitigate the risk of these temporary periods of low prices. What they can do is reduce or eliminate inputs like fertilizer, or pest and disease control, they reduce their labour costs and don’t prune. Then the trees produce a lot less, are weak, become far more susceptible to La Roya (the fungus), the supplies of coffee decrease, quality decreases, prices spike, and the farmers most in need of these increased prices have little or no coffee cherry to sell.

If you’re a roaster and the source of your raw commodity is about to collectively go out of business, you do just about anything to keep it going in the short term. A multi-national has pledged over $20 million they will provide to producers in Central America to keep them in business. Examples of people “paying more for the green” abound. This has to happen. When the patient is having a heart attack, CPR must be immediately applied. But, as we all know, CPR doesn’t prevent heart attacks. CPR isn’t the answer to heart disease.

What is the answer?

Agronomic research and development has been the precondition for profitable farming for over 200 years. This isn’t a “theory of change.” This is a fact. The state of coffee R&D is the primary reason coffee farming is currently a high risk, low reward, endeavour. People don’t know what variety of coffee grows best where. There’s long been a one size fits all approach to Good Agricultural Practices (GAP). The data about the most efficient, profitable, environmentally sustainable way to grow coffee simply doesn’t exist. Today, farmers all over the world are experimenting with “demo plots” trying this that and the other thing. This is an indication of the deep hunger and need producers have to crack the profitability code. The problem with this is that a demo plot isn’t science. You can’t extrapolate the results from a demo plot. There’s simply not enough statistical significance.

And here’s the big news: Ag R&D is undergoing a revolution. It’s not about GMO, either. It is about being able to easily read the DNA fingerprint of plants and animals and to use this information to match suitable parent plants. Walk into any produce section in the grocery store and you will likely find all kinds of tomatoes varieties, watermelons, grapes, strange looking squash, all not seen just 5 or 10 years ago. This revolution has largely passed up by the coffee industry with little notice until WCR was founded.

Imagine being a farmer considering a new agronomic approach to growing their potatoes. You will find the information that will allow you to calculate the return on investment of this new treatment. If it looks promising, you proceed. In coffee, this doesn’t exist. Farmers just try stuff. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Sometimes it works this year, but not next. It’s really just throwing darts.

Then there’s deforestation…if you’re not getting more coffee out of the same amount of land, your morning cup of coffee is now implicated in global deforestation.

And then there’s climate change, which is making more and more land unsuitable (read: unprofitable) to grow coffee.

I can tell you that no amount of post-processing finesse, or farmer education programs can deal with this. We need new varieties and comprehensive data about currently available ones. We needed a long time ago. Farmers around the world are paying the price for this deficiency now.

How long will we be able to continue to meet demand if the current supply does not increase?

This is hard to say. It’s exceedingly hard to predict the future. What I can say about the near future of coffee is that the low C prices will correct, will spike, and all the conversations about what to do about the C market will quiet.

Do you think we adequately understand the problems well enough to be able to offer solutions?

Yes. This isn’t rocket science. We can create the next generation of high producing, high-quality coffee varieties adapted to a warming world. We can crack the profitability code for producers, making all farmer education programs 2x more effective. But, and it’s a big but, we actually have to do it. Right now, WCR is not adequately funded by the industry. Every actor in the supply chain can participate in this work, and though many are, the majority prefer to work exclusively in their own supply chains. This competitive approach to sustainability can continue, and likely needs to. But every coffee company needs pre-competitive, coffee Ag R&D in its sustainability portfolio.

Can you explain your multi-locational varietal trial – where its taking place, what you are doing and how this will impact farming in the future?

We know that Pinot Noir grapes grow well in cool regions like Burgundy. We know Sangiovese grapes like hotter drier conditions. If a French producer in Burgundy planted his field with Sangiovese, he’d go out of business. The yields would be poor, the quality far below market standards. Yet, when it comes to coffee varieties, no one knows what grows well where. Not only do producers not have information about what grows well where, in many cases, they don’t even know the variety of coffee they have growing. The International multi-location variety trial will reveal what grows well where for the first time. More about that trial can be found here.

Do you have any results to share with us?

The object of this research is to demonstrate to various countries and origins how their local varieties perform against the world’s varieties. So, the vegetative growth data we are sharing is specific to each country. That said, above is early vegetative growth data summarized for all the trials. One thing you can see from this graph is that H1 and EC 16, two F1 hybrids, are out growing the traditional varieties by 100% in some cases. This is really what we expected to see, but it’s still exciting to actually see the data. These plants are producing significant cherry after two years, rather than in 3 or 4, are yielding near double, are frost tolerant, disease tolerant. Tell me, why would any company concerned about producer wellbeing, not be investing in WCR?