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World Coffee Research CEO Dr Jennifer “Vern” Long on her long-term vision

From the August 2019 issue.

World Coffee Research’s new CEO Dr. Jennifer “Vern” Long on the power of collaborations and why now is the time to harness science and technology to accelerate progress.

For most teenagers, a road trip across the Midwest of the United States, passing through wide open plains of soy beans and corn crops for hours on end, would define “boring”. For World Coffee Research’s (WCR) new CEO, Dr. Jennifer “Vern” Long, it was no exception.

Back then, there was no such thing as an iPod or smartphone to keep Long occupied, just an open window to Mother Nature and a selection of National Geographic magazines.

“My mother packed some copies so I picked one up, and it was all about the seed banks of international agricultural research centres. I was intrigued that there were researchers working in tropical agriculture who were conserving the genetic resources of all these different plants. These resources held the secrets to what made the most amazing-tasting tomato, potato, or who knows what,” Long tells Global Coffee Report.

She held onto that copy of National Geographic. Long even used it as a reference guide at university when she faxed – pre-email – each research centre listed in the publication asking for an internship, and it worked. Long completed a placement at the International Potato Center in Kenya working on sweet potato breeding.

A plant breeder by trade, Long went from maize breeding to managing global crop improvement programs in staple crops. Twenty-five years in, she is now immersing herself in the world of coffee at the helm of the industry’s global non-profit research organisation.

“Coffee is such a dynamic sector. It’s exciting to connect so many dots – research to enhance quality for consumers, profitability for farmers, and greater sustainability across supply chains.   Growing industry interest makes this critical research possible. Other commodities could only dream of bringing all this together,” Long says.

Joining the dots
Long first learned of WCR when working at the United States Agency for International Development in 2012, which led a US$5 million award to the organisation – born that same year – and Texas A&M University to facilitate research on coffee leaf rust in Central America.

From the outside looking in, Long says it was WCR’s broad connections between origin countries and international researchers that demonstrated early on it had the “perfect ecosystem” to go really far, really fast.

“In other commodities across the tropics, we worked to bring together industry stakeholders and national programs to develop multi-stakeholder dialogues to establish an agenda – [WCR Founder Dr. Tim Schilling] was already doing that,” Long says.

“WCR accelerated the progress – this nimble organisation that rose up and started to build these relationships. That’s what was so exciting and why I couldn’t not put my hat in the ring.”

Long says while national and international agricultural research centres face significant funding challenges, what’s impressive about WCR is its ability to bring the coffee industry together into a collaborative network of stakeholders to advance coffee varietal development and agronomic research.

“In the last few years there has been a strong focus among many national governments, including low- and high-income countries, to support plant breeding programs with public dollars. The fact that WCR has been tackling this need with unprecedented industry support is impressive,” she says.

The wider coffee industry is often criticised for its lack of financial support in relation to global issues such as the low C market price. However, to Long, its support of WCR is a very clear indication that it values sustainable action.

“In our small corner, and in its own way, the industry is stepping up. The industry called WCR into being because there was a recognition that industry’s greatest problems couldn’t be solved by a single company or government,” Long says.

Companies which were essential to providing WCR with the dollars to get off the ground and keeping it going include Keurig, Smuckers, and Dunkin’ in the US; Taylors of Harrogate, illycaffè and Lavazza in Europe; and Key Coffee in Japan. “They deserve credit for their leadership roles,” Long says. “They really are putting their money where their mouth is.”

Outside the box
One of the reasons Long says WCR is on a trajectory of growth is because it delivers results. Though variety trials require up to five years to generate findings, WCR’s robust pipeline ensures multiple research projects are conducted simultaneously. After seven years of building the pipeline, Long says new findings will accelerate over the coming year. The results are already illuminating ways to improve coffee quality, profitability, and productivity.

This includes a number of interconnecting projects such as WCR’s international multi-location variety trial (IMLVT) and on-farm technology trials, two global trial networks that link researchers and agronomists from dozens of partner companies and national coffee institutes to tackle constraints to production.

“Agricultural research is most successful when you have the end in mind. You need to drive towards a clear goal, which is different from exploring what’s possible as with blue-sky research. At WCR, we are focused on practical innovations that benefit farmers,” Long says.

“We’re implementing a research agenda focused on the foundations of what’s needed, allowing us to be nimble to respond to production challenges on a global level and assist agronomists at origin in the process.”

When it comes to sustainability, Long is realistic about WCR’s position. “We can’t solve every problem, but we have a major role to play in contributing to the sustainability goals of the coffee industry,” she says.

WCR is committed to the development of innovative technologies and new approaches to improve productivity and quality – no small challenge in the face of pressures like climate change. The other part of the equation, Long says, is the long-term profitability of coffee production. Agricultural development, bolstered by R&D, underpins many of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This includes goals around the elimination of poverty and inequality, fostering economic growth, sustainable land use, climate action, and partnership.

“We need to think outside the box. It’s a different landscape than 100 years ago. Solutions must be built on robust collaborations and partnerships. It’s the foundation that will allow us to succeed,” Long says.

Building blocks
The nature of research is to be iterative. It builds on itself. The development of one innovation unlocks the potential for new innovations, and research is most powerful when scientists are interlinked.

Long says an excellent example is the release of the first publicly available genome sequence for Coffea arabica, created by scientists from illycaffè, Lavazza, and a consortium of Italian univerisites, and published by WCR in 2018. Long says this kind of shared investment and collaboration is critical for coffee, as without it, the industry can’t take advantage of other innovations.

“Before you can go to space, you need the basic building blocks,” Long says. “Not many years ago, government research bodies funded innovations without also developing the system of tools required to facilitate impact. While breakthrough innovations are important, having a ‘first things first’ approach is critical in agriculture. In coffee, that’s what happened with the development of the coffee genome. It’s one of those foundational tools you must have to go anywhere fast.”

Long says such advances are needed if the industry wants more productive varieties with higher quality.

“The genomic tools that are available to us now weren’t 10 to 20 years ago, transaction costs of collaborations were very high, and moving material and exchanging information was challenging,” Long says.

“With new genomic and genetic tools, we can make tremendous progress not previously possible. While coffee production faces challenges, what with rising temperatures and emergent pests and diseases, coffee’s untapped genetic diversity makes me confident we have the right tools in our arsenal to tackle whatever challenges come our way.”

Effective collaborations
The development of seed production systems for mass-producing F1 hybrid varieties is one example of how coffee’s genetic diversity can be tapped to get new technologies to farmers faster and at lower cost. Traditionally, pure line breeding takes 20 to 30 years to create a new variety ready for commercial release to farmers. However, F1 hybrid varieties – created by crossing genetically distinct parents – can take just eight to 10 years to be ready for commercial release. Long says the high cost of generating these F1 varieties is a major challenge that can be solved by tapping into coffee’s amazing genetic diversity.

The first wave of these varieties created by a consortium led by the French research institute CIRAD and released for farmers in Central America, has shown significantly higher production than non-hybrids while maintaining high cup quality and disease tolerance. Long says progress on low-cost seed production over the next few years will dramatically improve the ability to scale up F1 hybrid varieties to many more farmers.

“My belief is that by 2050, most of the coffee trees in the ground will probably be hybrids, and the whole landscape will be different. But it can’t happen without a major collaborative effort with national coffee institutes and connections at origin – a pre-competitive, multi-dimensional effort,” Long says.

New breeding hubs in Central America and Rwanda are another example of collaborations in action. The hubs are hosted by a national coffee institute in the region and strengthen the capacity of researchers across the region. They facilitate access to expertise and breeding populations to create new coffee varieties that are locally adapted for the benefit of local producers.

WCR’s IMLVT program is the organisation’s most well developed and mature. The program facilitates the global exchange of the world’s top 30 coffee varieties to 40 sites in 22 countries, to examine how varieties perform across different environmental conditions.

“It’s unprecedented and extremely powerful. Multi-locational variety testing is a standard practice but across the many varieties we’re using and across the many countries we’re doing it in, it’s really unusual. The quality and volume of data it’s generating, critical for ultimately preserving diversity of origins, will shift the way people think about what’s possible through coffee R&D,” Long says.

WCR’s Global Coffee Monitoring Program is what Long describes as the organisation’s most “successful” and “ambitious” project to date. The first of its kind, this network of hundreds of farmer field trials across 17 countries (and growing) tests improved varieties and climate-smart agronomy practices to help deliver the most profitability to farmers. Farmers and agronomists from dozens of exporting companies and NGOs devote their time, energy, and land for testing of new varieties and farming approaches. The fact that so many do, Long says, is an indication they see the potential and long-term value for their farm and industry.

Thirty years ago, she notes that agricultural research was mainly focused on production volume, with far less attention to issues like quality. Nowadays, Long says WCR’s focus is reorienting coffee research to help farmers maintain profitability, adapt to climate change, and improve quality.

Strategic vision
At the time of print, Long had just completed her sixth week as the CEO of WCR. Slightly overwhelmed but excited at the prospects ahead, Long is confident her 25 years of agricultural research, management and partnership experience make her well positioned to take WCR from strength to strength, and set the organisation up for further growth.

Schilling will remain WCR President Europe until the end of 2019, then it’s over to Long and her dedicated team to implement WCR’s 2.0 strategic vision. This includes catalysing more diverse research networks and deepening capacity of national coffee institutes – a shift Long is experienced in and was brought in to operationalise.

“In order to help coffee producers contend with the variability and uncertainty of climate change, WCR and its partners must take mutual advantage of one another’s assets and knowledge,” Long says.

“We exist to bring deeper connections across different scientific fields so researchers can take advantage of what’s out there and accelerate progress to bring coffee innovations to scale at a global level – which I know we can.”

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