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The coffee bean is a bit like the banana. As with the Cavendish, the banana variety found on most of the world’s supermarket shelves, the genetic diversity of the arabica coffee bean, the highest quality bean, is very low. Commercially grown arabica coffee in most producing countries originates from a few seeds taken centuries ago from Ethiopia to Yemen. In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company brought them to Indonesia, from where they moved on to Europe and then to Latin America. “In both coffee and the banana, the low genetic diversity in commercial plants means they cannot adapt to changes in the environment,” says Raf Aerts, research fellow at the University of Leuven in Belgium. Growers of bananas have long since been engaged in a fight for the fruit’s survival. With the Cavendish variety they are battling a fungal plague that is spreading through plantations in Asia. Coffee researchers and scientists fear that their commodity may succumb to a similar fate. Of the 125 species of coffee, most of the beans grown in the world come from two, arabica and robusta. Arabica — smoother flavoured than the bitter robusta bean that is used mainly for instant coffee — is a more fragile plant and susceptible to disease and the rigours of drought. However, while almost every other food crop has been significantly improved through plant breeding over the past century, coffee has had very little research behind it. “Coffee is an orphan crop,” says Timothy Schilling, founder and chief executive of the World Coffee Research, a group funded by the coffee industry. “It’s mainly grown in under-developed countries that don’t have resources and funding.” With global coffee demand expected to double by 2050 and land available for production forecast to decrease, higher yielding varieties that can withstand disease and drought are crucial, say coffee experts. The WCR recently created 46 hybrid varieties that are being tested in the field. Before the WCR was established in 2012, Benoit Bertrand, now its chief coffee breeder, was involved in creating an earlier wave of coffee hybrids, released in 2010, in Latin America. These appear resistant to fungal coffee leaf rust and have also won taste testing competitions in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. For plant breeders, the existence of wild genes is essential to developing new strains that are resistant to disease and drought. These can be found in Ethiopia, home to the last remaining undisturbed forests where wild arabica coffee is grown. However, these forests are disappearing at an alarming rate because of logging and deforestation, says Mr Aerts. “The genetic integrity of wild coffee is being lost,” he adds. A research team at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew is mapping the genetics of hundreds of undocumented wild arabica species in the forests of Ethiopia. The team wants to use these wild species as a base to create resilient varieties. Aaron Davis, senior research leader of plant resources at Kew, however, says none of the new arabica varieties being trialled have so far managed to overcome drought conditions. Kew’s latest research indicates that a 4C increase in temperature in Ethiopia by the end of this century could lead to up to 60 per cent decline in coffee-growing areas. Prof Sebsebe Demissew, a senior botanical scientist at the University of Addis Ababa and a co-author of the Kew research, says: “As Ethiopia is the main natural storehouse of genetic diversity for arabica coffee, what happens [here] could have long-term impacts for coffee farming globally.”
Source Finacial Times