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Q&A with Tim Schilling, World Coffee Research

People standing on field

8 January 2019

Interview: LM Salazar | Crop Trust

As we prepare for our next #CropsInColor trip, which will take us to Costa Rica, Panama and El Salvador to explore the role coffee plays in people’s lives there, we reach out to Dr. Tim Schilling, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of World Coffee Research (WCR).

A scientist and development expert with a long history in helping establish research programs in Africa and Latin America, Tim is known in coffee industry circles as the man who brought widespread attention to the fact that coffee was an orphan crop: “grown in poor countries, consumed in rich countries, and researched in neither.” He took it upon himself to change this, and in 2012 spearheaded the creation of WCR.

In our chat, Tim talks coffee diversity -- how it underpins the critical role WCR is playing in adapting this crop to a changing climate, and the urgent need to safeguard the foundation of coffee’s USD 100 billion-a-year industry. This exchange has been edited for brevity.

Luis Salazar: For many people around the world, coffee is coffee, just like rice is rice. But there are more than 500,000 varieties of Asian cultivated rice. Can you talk about coffee diversity?

Tim Schilling: Well, there are not thousands of varieties of coffee out there. You go to the UPOV [The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants] site, and you’ll find there are 52 registered varieties. There are others that fall in the public domain; these might add up to another 50. So really, there are probably no more than 100 coffee varieties in the world and there is precious little diversity among them. In fact, WCR sequenced and evaluated each one of the 800+ accessions in the Arabica World Collection and found that the entire Arabica species is very constricted genetically. What does this mean? It means we are blocked or walled in in a way, genetically. To make progress, especially with new threats being caused by the changing climate, we absolutely must have greater diversity in the genetics of coffee.

With greater diversity we can breed more adaptable, more sustainable, more resilient coffee varieties for farmers, and for the whole coffee industry.

That is why the Global Conservation Strategy for Coffee Genetic Resources that World Coffee Research and the Crop Trust worked on in 2017 is key to the future of coffee.

LS: According to this Global Strategy, there are ~20,000 accessions housed in four genebanks, which together safeguard the world’s most complete coffee collection, including many wild Coffea species. But, as you say, there’s limited variability in farmers’ fields.

TS: There are over 125 identified species in the Coffea family. We only drink two of them – C. arabica and C. canephora, or Robusta. Within those two species, there is remarkably little genetic diversity being used in farmers’ fields, despite the fact that greater diversity exists in germplasm collections. A great example is the Geisha variety, which like all Arabica varieties evolved in Ethiopia. It was collected in the ‘30s and sent to a series of genebanks around the world, where it mostly sat unused. Then, in the 2000s, the specialty coffee market emerged, where people were suddenly interested in unique flavor profiles. The Geisha was “rediscovered” from some farms near the CATIE genebank, and today, it’s known as the crown jewel of Arabica coffee varieties and has sold for hundreds of dollars per pound. If it hadn’t been in that genebank, we’d likely not know of it.

But of equal importance are all the other species of coffee out there that we don’t drink. It’s not just Arabica. Arabica may not even survive unless we are able to introgress genes from other Coffea species. It’s not just Robusta either. It could be Liberica, for example. That’s why it is so critical that we not lose those genetic treasures being safeguarded at CATIE, and the thousands more held at FOFIFA Kianjavato Coffee Research Station in Madagascar; the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI) Choche Field Genebank; and the Centre National De La Recherche Agronomique (CNRA) Coffee Genebank, located in Ivory Coast. Together, they conserve the world’s most diverse and complete collection of coffee diversity.

There’s also wild Coffea materials still to be found in in situ locations, but access to those is much harder to come by.

LS: And we are in danger of losing this diversity.

TS: Yes. And I can say that just based on my personal experience: in 2014, I organized an expedition to the Boma Plateau in South Sudan, which has always been considered as a possible secondary center of origin for the arabica species. (The first center of origin is Ethiopia.) Our mission was really to go in there and see if we could still find arabica species. This was after the outbreak of civil war in 2013.

At hand, we had a complete botanical description of the way South Sudan’s coffee environment was in the 1930s; written by a British botanist named Dr. Thomas, who described in detail how the flora was, the coffee, the shading, the trees, everything.

Well, we didn’t find anything even closely resembling Dr. Thomas’ lush description. Instead, we saw  a landscape ravaged by fires and drought. We did find Arabica plants scattered throughout the forest, so we confirmed that Arabica was still growing in the Boma Plateau, but the plants were stressed, very small and were very difficult to locate, completely unlike the description of Dr. Thomas. This was an eye-opener for us in coffee genetics – a lot of the native plants have simply disappeared from drought, grazing pressures and/or fires. Among them – possibly, though we do not know – super important genetic material for coffee that could allow us to much easily navigate through the perils of climate change. More so because the Boma Plateau is often drought prone.

The Arabica coffee that we found in South Sudan could have traits like drought tolerance that could help us breed better materials against climate change.

In that trip, we witnessed a massive change in that particular environment in South Sudan – the results of eight decades of rural transformation and climate change.

LS: A more positive transformation took place in Rwanda, in the early 2000s, where you spearheaded the country’s development of a market for specialty coffee production? In the process, thousands of people in rural areas benefited from this. Am I right in saying that this experience was the genesis of World Coffee Research?

TS: Well, yes, in a way -- the beginning of WCR came about actually in trying to figure out the quality interventions that would assure a good final product. For this, you have to do research. For example, what is the effect of reducing transport time of coffee cherries from the farm to the washing station on the cup quality of coffee? If it is two days, the cherries will rot. Where is the ‘quality threshold’ in time? Two hours after picking? 12 hours?  When does quality take a big dive as cherries begin to naturally ferment? What’s best quality point? You set up an experiment to look at that.

So here I was, a Professor from Texas A&M carrying out a literature review to see what had been done earlier regarding transport time and quality. And lo and behold, there was almost nothing on the effects of anything on cup quality of coffee – on transport time, on temperature, on all these variables, there was nothing. I said:

This is crazy. A USD 100 billion industry based on a commodity that’s being driven by quality, and there is no agricultural research on the effects of different agronomical variables on the cup quality of coffee?

That’s actually what led me to propose to the specialty coffee sector an R&D unit for the industry.

LS: WCR was launched in 2012. Do you think that today, in 2019, the industry understands the challenges that the coffee farmers are facing, and will face in the future, for the industry as a whole to stay in business? Maybe more importantly, for them all to continue expanding?

TS: It has taken them a long time to get it. It’s not easy; most are in business selling roasted coffee not coffee genetics. A lot of times they don’t think about the production side of things. Market price is only USD 1.30 / lb. today – so there must be lots of coffee, because prices are down right? And that’s true. As a result, when you try to talk to them about the importance of an agricultural research program, one that is trying to protect and grow the supply of your commodities at origin; increase the quality; and differentiate it for new market, they don’t really get it.

Some do. Some have done so, for some time now. You have J.M. Smuckers. Nestle. Illy, of course – they have been working on this for a long time, they know all of this. But most were like, ‘We’ll spend our money on building a school’, or something similar.

It was difficult to build WCR. We came out with about a USD 1.2 million annual budget. I said, ‘If there is anything less than that, then we shouldn’t even bother. It means the industry is just not interested enough’. That was about six years ago. Now we’re at USD 5.5 million a year. So the coffee industry is getting it. My biggest concern is this: will it be a fast enough build-up to take care of our foundational genetic and agronomic constraints? We now have a goal of reaching an annual budget of USD 10 million in another two years, and then beyond that too. R&D is a no-brainer for almost all agricultural commodities. Rates of return on investment in agricultural R&D runs between 25% and 45% depending on geography, commodity, etc. The thing with coffee is that there never existed a global R&D program with adequate resources to sustain supplies of quality coffee through R&D. At best, we have the very excellent Cenicafé in Colombia and a slew of great research institutes in Brazil but most other producing countries are constrained for resources in research and many don’t even have a coffee research unit!

This kind of research needs appropriate funding. You can’t work miracles with just a few million dollars concerning a global commodity like coffee.

LS: For you personally, what is the most exciting thing that WCR is working on now?

TS: The coolest, most impactful thing we are doing is our Global Coffee Production Monitoring Program. This is a series of on-farm technology trials, where we are working directly with farms in 22 coffee-producing countries. In every country we have between 40 to 80 of these on-farm trials -- a lot of replication. And in each of those trials we are testing (a) the best improved variety against whatever the farmer is growing, and (b) the best agronomic practice or input.

Overall, what we are looking at is farmer profitability. But to do so, we are looking at a lot of variables. We’re measuring climatic variables, soil variables, social and economic variables. We are creating a huge big data set.

You could say we are building a giant stethoscope placed directly on to the global coffee sector. This is what will help the industry navigate through the perils of climate change over the next 50 years.

The findings will allow us to remedy constraints in a rapid manner. For example, we’ll know exactly what the effects of a one-degree Celsius temperature increase will be on coffee production and coffee quality. We’ll be able to tell you which quality attributes are predominant in Variety A and Variety B. Or, which part of a quality attribute is due to genetics, and which is due to the environment. This is indeed one of the most exciting things we are doing.

LS: Can you give us an example on how coffee diversity is playing a role in your research?

TS: Coffee Leaf Rust (CLR) is probably the most important disease in coffee. The resistance for CLR comes from Robusta and, for the last 80 years, we’ve been able to have resistant varieties that perform well. But guess what? In the last five years, the resistance is breaking down. This is largely driven by the increased temperatures and more favourable climate for rust infection and infestation. Diversity is so important, largely because we need new sources of genetic resistance for rust. We’re out of them in Arabica. Forget it; they are not there. Robusta, with the Timor Hybrid[1]: we’ve already utilized those. Now the rust disease itself knows all about the strategies of using the Timor Hybrids, and has built up its own strategies to overcome that resistance. So it has become more and more critical that we find new sources of resistance. Where will we find these new sources? In coffee’s genetic diversity.

LS: So the diversity that is housed in genebanks around the world is being used to develop resistance to Coffee Leaf Rust. It’s also used to explore and improve cup quality, for example. But 50 or 100 years from now, this diversity might be used for other challenges that we do not know even know about, and researchers will need to tap into varieties that maybe today are not considered indispensable. In short, as we say here at the Crop Trust, it’s important to safeguard all of this diversity. My last question: what would be your message to those people that can make that difference and help fund the Global Coffee Collection forever?

TS: Here’s what will happen in 30 years if we do not invest in safeguarding coffee’s genetic diversity: we’re going to have less coffee, higher prices, and coffee that is less differentiated in its taste attributes and lower on the quality scale. That’s what is going to happen.

So if everybody is ok with the fact that we are going to be paying USD 10 – 15 a cup for crappy coffee in 30 years, that’s fine. Don’t invest in this. But if you want your consumers to continue to enjoy the incredible flavor profiles of this plant, then you have to invest in this conservation effort. There is no question about it.

-- ENDS --

The Crop Trust has partnered with World Coffee Research to develop the Global Conservation Strategy for Coffee Genetic Resources. The goal of this Global Strategy is to ensure the conservation and use of coffee genetic resources for a positive, sustainable future of the crop and for those who depend on coffee for a livelihood.

The Crop Trust and WCR estimate it will cost about  USD 1 million a year to support the most important collections. An endowment fund of USD 25 million, paying out 4% per year, would provide that ongoing funding forever, without the need to scrape together funding year to year. The Crop Trust and WCR will now work to find funding for the Crop Trust Endowment Fund to ensure secure funding for the coffee collections, forever.

Invest today in the future of coffee. If 25 million people (out of the 7.5 billion worldwide) donated just 1 dollar, coffee would be safe forever.

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