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World Coffee Research breeds coffee for the future

From the July 2019 issue.

A new Breeding Hub in East Africa is using advanced breedingĀ approaches to help combat low yield, climate change, and disease.

Seven years ago, Finca El Valle, a coffee farm south of Antigua in Guatemala, saw an outbreak of coffee leaf rust, resulting in an 80 per cent decrease in the farm’s coffee production. That was just the beginning of this debilitating disease. Two years later, it decimated the majority of the country’s coffee producing regions, with nearly 300,000 coffee farmers across the Guatemala needing to replant.

“This was our wake-up call,” says Hanna Neuschwander, World Coffee Research (WCR) Communications Director. “When the infection hit Central America, it became clear that if we had good, functional, and funded research on an ongoing basis, that crisis wouldn’t have happened, or at least the devastation would have been significantly lessened.”

Neuschwander says due to Africa’s severe and persistent lack of agricultural research and development, African coffee producers were even more at risk of a disease outbreak than those in Central America. In response, the African Fine Coffee’s Association and WCR hosted the 2015 African Coffee Renaissance Summit where more than 55 coffee research, companies, national bodies, developing organisations, and finance institutions united in Nairobi, Kenya. The purpose was to collaborate on developing a climate-smart, market-driven strategy to raise coffee productivity while enhancing crop quality in Africa.

The summit formed a plan to get existing, high-performing varieties and soil treatments into the hands of African coffee producers and extension services while simultaneously building a research platform to jumpstart more breeding.

In 2018, that plan became as reality as WCR in collaboration with the Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) began working on a Breeding Hub in Rwanda to develop new disease- and climate-resilient varietals.

Since 2011, RAB has run its own coffee breeding program to help generate a new wave of disease-resistant varietals, with its most successful release the RAB C15 for coffee producers in Rwanda. However, Simon Martin, RAB Breeding Hub Ambassador, says the new Hub in collaboration with WCR will play an important role for Africa’s coffee producing industry going forward.

“The Hub is expected to produce the next generation of coffee varieties that will be adapted to various growing conditions in Africa and sustain the industry’s genetic breeding pools,” Martin says. “The creation of new, highly adaptable varieties, coupled with a sustainable and effective seed production and distribution systems, is expected to improve coffee productivity and quality gains, not only in Rwanda’s coffee industry, but also in Africa.” 

In order to achieve this, the Hub supports participating countries to create new varietals, and to utilise advanced breeding techniques to accelerate genetic improvement, including molecular-assisted and F1 breeding. 

“In traditional pure line breeding it can take up to 30 years from the moment breeders start their work on a new variety until it is released to farmers. With F1 hybrid breeding you can speed up the process from 10 to 15 years,” says Neuschwander.

Christophe Montagnon, Chief Science Officer for WCR, describes F1 hybrids as “a new group of varieties created by crossing genetically distinct Arabica parents and using the first-generation offspring”.

F1 hybrid varieties are known for their “hybrid vigour”, which can translate to everything from improved yields to better protection against diseases like coffee leaf rust, to tolerance to stress like heat and drought.

The genetically distant “mates” are selected from a collection of 100 plants, known as the WCR Core Collection. The Core Collection was created from a large collection of more than 826 Arabica plants, which WCR studied to determine the ones that were the most genetically different from one another. All 100 plants from the Core Collection are currently in the field at the new breeding hub.

“Many of these relatively new F1 hybrid varieties are being created to combine the best characteristics of the two parents, including high cup quality, high yield, and disease resistance, with added hybrid vigour,” Montagnon says. They are also expected to be more effective in combatting challenges such as climate change.

“Droughts have become more frequent in coffee regions in recent years. It’s expected that Arabica production will decline in the next 20 years, but the development of cultivars that are tolerant to drought and heat stress can delay this from happening,” Montagnon says.

“Currently, we have 40 varieties that we’ve created that are being tested in three locations in Central America at different altitudes, and one on location at the Rwandan breeding hub,” says Lucile Toniutti, WCR’s Molecular Breeder. “We are conducting several trials where we are comparing yields, growth, resistance, and cup quality, and the best performing varieties will be released to farmers.”

One caveat about the use of F1 hybrids is that the children of an F1 hybrid will not look or behave the same as the parent, and the variety should only be reproduced through clonal propagation. This, in effect, makes “copies” of the mother plant from leaf tissue or cuttings, a commonly used propagation technique for crops including apples, cherries, and grapes.

In addition to pursuing the creation of new F1 hybrid varieties, the new Hub at RAB will also make use of molecular breeding approaches. 

“Molecular plant breeders undertake scientific research into plant-based agriculture to try and improve plant breeding techniques to develop new strains of crops,” Toniutti says.

Toniutti adds that using molecular markers, breeders can condense breeding time even further because it becomes possible to test plants to see if interesting traits are present when plants are in the infancy stage. This is preferable then having to wait until plants reach full maturity, which in coffee, can be three to five years.

“You can test on a plant that’s six weeks years old. Using a hole puncher, you can take a sample of the leaf tissue, run it through a machine, and see if those DNA markers are there or not. If they’re there you continue to test on that sample,” Toniutti says.

WCR adds that breeding new varieties is a slow process, but with time, it hopes to speed up the development of varieties and learn from other industries that have vast experience in dissemination.

“Currently, there are 3442 strawberry varieties registered with the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants but only 52 coffee varieties. There’s more innovation in strawberry breeding than coffee,” says Neuschwander. “The overall result of launching this new regional hub will be that more breeding is able to happen. More breeding means more problems solved for farmers, for example: specialised varieties for high versus low altitudes, drought, heat tolerance, and cup quality.”

WCR’s Toniutti adds that scientific breeding will preserve specialised coffee for the future of the industry.

“Climate change will continue to impact coffee production. If we did nothing it might disappear. Our best hope will be sustaining the supply of high quality coffee and making the coffee plant more resilient,” Toniutti says.

Through the development of molecular breeding and creating F1 hybrids the Rwanda Breeding Hub will serve as a centralised location for different countries to access breeding populations, expertise, and materials that can be utilised to create new coffee varieties.

“It’s the first time we’ve organised an international collaboration on this scale. Breeders from across East Africa will come to Rwanda to make their own variations and take the seeds back to breed in their countries,” WCR’s Montagnon says. Similar Coffee Hubs are being developed for Latin America and Asia and are expected to open in 2019 to 2020.

RAB’s Martin adds the Breeding Hub will provide long-term solutions in developing highly adaptable varieties that are accessible to farmers in the region.

“This is the first time we’ve had access to such a huge genetic diversity,” Martin says. “It’s a gold mine for the farmers who have this type of breeding at their fingertips.”

Chairing the Hub’s Breeders Committee, Jane Cheserek of the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation says “the results of the breeding process within the hub is going to ensure that new varieties are developed to satisfy the coffee value chain’s beneficiaries from the farmer to consumer.

“This Breeding Hub will help build connections between different partners and collaborators. It is expected that farmers will be able to receive feedback from buyers to continue to improve and develop more specialty coffee.”

WCR’s Montagnon, Toniutti, and Neuschwander believe that in five years’ time the Rwanda Breeding Hub will become a producer of specialty coffee and establish a community of regional breeders.

“The future of this Hub will foresee a community putting their brains together to develop the best varieties for their region,” Montagnon says.

Neuschwander adds that the importance of preserving coffee is more prevalent now more than ever.

“You wake up to coffee, become reinvigorated with it, and rely on it,” Neuschwander says. “Why wouldn’t you do everything you possibly can to preserve it?”

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