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WCR CEO Jennifer “Vern” Long identifies industry challenges for 2020

From the January 2020 issue.

GCR petitions industry leaders on the year ahead: the opportunities, challenges, and trends set to change the game and demand our attention in 2020.

Jennifer “Vern” Long
CEO, World Coffee Research

We are squarely in the middle of a major transformation of the coffee sector. Climate change, low prices, and structural change in coffee-producing origins are driving shifts that have become increasingly visible over the past year.

We can now see clearly that this drama ends – in the absence of a common agenda to address it – with significant erosion of origin diversity. In my prior work, I oversaw a portfolio of United States government investment in agricultural research programs for 18 commodities around the world, with US$140 million in annual investment. From my experience, I have never seen a commodity as vulnerable as coffee.

The threat to origin diversity is significant, and it will take collaborative muscle to address it. It will be critical for the industry to keep in view which producing countries are investing in their coffee sectors, as those investments and the systematic plans that lead to them can have an enormous impact on how countries are positioned in this shifting landscape. Across Africa, for example, at least five countries are integrating coffee in their national agricultural investment plans. The continent has tremendous potential for both quality and production growth – and countries are mobilising investment with the US$950 million Africa Coffee Facility.

On the consumption side, we expect this transformation to continue to drive difficult conversations about the meaning of sustainability, especially the economic sustainability of coffee as a livelihood. For other commodity crops in which there has been a lasting negative price trend, evidence clearly shows that the only way for producers to stay in the game is to improve productivity and profitability, making agricultural innovation investments a critical foundation.

We have been gratified to see a growing consensus about the importance of agricultural research and development for the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of coffee, and for the sustainable growth of supply. 

In 2020, we expect to see the solidification of a shared, global research agenda around protecting origin diversity, and the mobilisation of private and public sector resources to advance it. In the coming year, World Coffee Research’s global trial network will begin posting a critical mass of results and data that can inform and activate that agenda.

Those results will be shared widely with national programs, researchers, supply chain, and the industry as a whole. The biggest challenge is coffee’s perennial challenge: to ensure that the fruits of all this work reach farmers.

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