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Genetically modified coffee beans? A look at the great bean gene quandary

From the May 2011 issue.

As the quest to increase coffee crop yields ramps up, the role played by science in the future of the coffee industry cannot be underestimated. How are farmers reacting?

Story by Jacqueline Mcarthur

Scientists call it “the Goldilocks plant”. Conditions need to be not too hot, not too cold. It likes it not too wet, not too dry. It doesn’t like too much sun, but too much shade is also bad news.
The plants that produce coffee beans are notoriously sensitive and small changes in temperature and precipitation can have large impacts on both quantity and quality. 

A warming global climate, coupled with increases in super adaptive weeds and resilient pestilence, means production losses are escalating. Yet, the unquenchable demand for the world’s favourite cognitive enhancer grows and grows. The race to unpick the genetic secrets of coffee has never been more important. 

However, the scientific community’s response has been an intriguing mix of concerted collaboration, secrecy and ambivalence. 

Mapping the coffee genome and deciphering the important biological traits in coffee tree species has brought together an international network of geneticists.

Yet, true advances in transgenic coffee plants designed to reduce production problems or enhance quality have been incremental and prohibitively expensive to execute. Vehement opposition and even vandalism have also played a part in genetically modified coffee’s slow start.

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