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Keeping the Coffee Pot Hot

Keeping the Coffee Pot Hot

30 September 2020

In-depth Audit Suggests Sustainable Way Forward For Key International Coffee Collection

For the past 71 years, the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), located at Turrialba in Costa Rica has been the custodian of what is now the world’s only internationally recognized collection of coffee diversity. During those seven long decades, CATIE has painstakingly and laboriously safeguarded this unique diversity as trees in the field, and shared it with breeders, farmers and other users all over the world.

Unfortunately, time and insufficient resources have taken their toll. A recently finalized in-depth study by conservation expert Dr Ehsan Dulloo, commissioned by the Crop Trust, found that approximately 80% of the most important material in the collection is at risk.  “The study explored in detail this hard reality,” said Hannes Dempewolf, Senior Scientist and Head of Global Initiatives of the Crop Trust. “But, more importantly, it puts forward a series of feasible, concrete, costed actions that will ensure the long-term conservation and availability of the collection.”


Keeping a coffee collection alive and available is no easy feat. Since the establishment of its International Coffee Collection in 1949, CATIE has faced and overcome significant challenges, both technical and financial. It continues to be a struggle to properly maintain the coffee collection with insufficient and uncertain funding. 

“The collection is, quite simply, under-resourced. This is not unique to CATIE. It’s true, unfortunately, for a lot of genebanks around the world,” said Ehsan. 

But not many genebanks get the opportunity of an external expert coming in and helping staff to make objective decisions about how to best use limited resources. “Defining the optimum size of the collection can be hard for genebank staff, but it’s essential if the institution is to achieve its mission to safeguard this diversity in perpetuity, and do it within budget,” said Ehsan. 

Carlos Astorga, a former staff member of the CATIE genebank, was Ehsan’s counterpart on the study. Among other things, Carlos was charged with fully updating the inventory of the collection, something that had not been done since 2014. That meant bringing together information from a number of different sources and verifying the data in the field. 

According to the up-to-date inventory, there are now a total of 1,895 accessions in the CATIE collection. An accession is a group of plants originally all collected in one place: it may consist of anything from a single tree to a dozen. The collection is made up principally of commercial coffee species: arabica coffee (92% of the total), both wild and cultivated, followed by Coffea canephora or robusta coffee, (4%) and C. liberica (1%). The remaining 3% includes such wild species as C. sessiliflora, C. brevipes, C. pseudozanguebariae, C. eugenioides, C. racemosa, C. salvatrix and C. congensis.

Leaf samples of coffee diversity found at CATIE, Costa Rica. Credit: Luis Salazar/Crop Trust

However, of these 1,895 accessions, 1,104 represent the most diverse and high-value material. The study recommends that future conservation efforts prioritize these in a revamped, “rationalized” collection.

Beyond updating the status of the collection, the study also sets out a series of recommendations that will help CATIE develop a comprehensive strategy for the sustainable long-term safeguarding the collection. These activities include: 

  • Developing a database bringing together all the relevant information on the International Coffee Collection.
  • Urgently rescuing the material that is most in danger of being lost.
  • Safety duplicating the historic collection of wild arabica coffee.
  • Relocating the collection to a new site at a higher altitude and with better soil and drainage.


Ehsan Dulloo (l.) and William Solano examining a coffee tree at CATIE. Photo: Ehsan Dulloo

To prioritize the material within the collection, Ehsan looked in particular at the number and health of each of the trees in each accession. How many trees are there, and how well are they doing? In many cases, both quantity and quality were found to be inadequate. 

This audit provides an excellent baseline against which progress in improving the health status of the rationalized collection can be monitored. The study recommends a regular review of the situation. “This requires quite a bit of time and staff. But if we don’t want to lose diversity, that is the way to go,” said Ehsan. 

The study also includes a conservation action plan that details the costs of safety duplication, relocation and renovation of the rationalized collection. 

Safety duplication

Selected materials from the CATIE collection are held at several other locations: in Nicaragua, at the French Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement (IRD) on La Reunion island in the Indian Ocean, and at the World Coffee Research field station in El Salvador, among others. But these are not official back-up copies. At any moment, the managers of these stations can decide to do away with them. 

Formal safety duplicates do exist, in the form of cryopreserved seeds, but for only 63 accessions, or 3% of the collection. These are held in the central genebank of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

The study recommends that 316 accessions of arabica should be safety duplicated in an urgent first phase. These materials are not present in any of the above-mentioned locations, and, as far as is known, are thus only found in CATIE’s collection. 

The CATIE collection consists of 1,895 accessions of coffee.

Relocating the collection

Over the years, the collection has suffered a number of losses due to the aging of trees, cultivation methods that are inappropriate for some coffee types, and waterlogging at the field sites. 

As part of the in-depth study, Carlos Astorga carried out a thorough evaluation of three possible alternative sites for the relocation of the collection.  

“The CATIE collection is unique. The relocation of the coffee collection is a real opportunity to put in place the best possible management system, in the most favorable location,” said Ehsan. 

The study recommends “that – as part of the relocation – the number of individual plants in each accession be brought [up or down] to six individual plants, keeping the original plants as far as possible.”

That will mean planting and managing a total of 6,624 trees. At the minimum, Ehsan says it will take six years to relocate the collection. And it will need to be done in carefully planned phases. 

“I know it will be difficult to raise the funds to do everything in one go. That is why I presented a number of options in the costing plan,” he said. “But the study has shown what the priorities are, and identifies which are the accessions that need to be taken care of first.”

Moving forward

“Not everyone realizes the potential genebanks have for improving food security. There needs to be a change in mindset about that,” said Ehsan. “That will be easier to achieve when we invest in fully describing all accessions so that we can better understand, and communicate, their value.”

But the responsibility for that should not be limited to the public sector, especially when it comes to industrial crops such as coffee. Ehsan is emphatic: the coffee industry needs to acknowledge the value of the CATIE collection; private sector stakeholders have benefited from access to the collection without contributing significantly to its running costs. He adds, “the work that has been done by WCR shows that some of the CATIE accessions have a lot of useful characteristics – nematode resistance and good cupping qualities, for example. This study shows how threatened a lot of those accessions are, and the coffee industry needs to contribute to safeguarding this collection. And use it to improve the crop.”

This study is the first step in the implementation of the Global Conservation Strategy for Coffee Genetic Resources, which identified CATIE’s collection as one of four that, together, conserve the most diverse and unique coffee material in the world. (The other genebanks are in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Madagascar; they are known as “The Origin Collections”.) 

“On behalf of the Crop Trust, I would like to thank CATIE’s management and genebank staff for providing Ehsan with the support he needed to carry out this important work,” said Stefan Schmitz, Executive Director of the Crop Trust. “The results of this study will allow CATIE to assess how best to move forward in the years to come, to be sure the coffee diversity they maintain on behalf of the whole world under the Plant Treaty remains safe and available.”

“We are committed to supporting their efforts – more so, knowing that CATIE presently does not have the financial means to carry out the recommendations of the report. And we will continue to help build a global system for the conservation of the diversity of this crop that will undoubtedly benefit coffee lovers everywhere,” he concluded. 

The in-depth study was made possible thanks to the generous support provided by FELCO, a Swiss, family-owned tool making company. 

Categories: Genebanks, Global Crop Conservation Strategies

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