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The Coffee Tree: the current state and the future of the plant

No surprise: coffee trees are at risk and world coffee production has been largely overwhelmed by demand. This status was officially announced in 2015 at the first World Forum of Coffee Producing Countries held in Medellín, Colombia.

Coffee will not be spared by climate change and the rise of our thermometers as it is sensitive to the slightest temperature variations. If the warming trend continues, more than half of the world's arable land will be reduced by 2050. For the past three years, coffee production has not provided demand. Since 2012, consumption growth of this drink has increased by more than 1.3% each year.

Coffee plantation in Brazil

You should know that the coffee you all love, Arabica, requires a shady, cool environment, which is found in mountainous soil for optimal development. Too high temperatures affect the aromatic development of the species and the production of its sugars and amino acids. The problem is that with temperature increases, these plants have to climb to survive and to obtain this environment, which reduces the area available to their crop. Thus, coffee once famous for specialty, which grow at higher altitudes, will have to leave some regions to make way for arabica... so goodbye to some of the richest terroirs in the world!

The market will have no choice but to adjust and this impasse will have to go through two solutions: adaptation and reduction of climate impacts. We are talking here about reducing CO2 (of course!) and making changes in the coffee growing sites.

Hybridization

This is where the World Coffee Research (WCR) comes in, which I had the privilege of visiting in El Salvador twice. Their solution and their quest are complex: they need to build a new generation of coffee varieties, more resistant, more acclimated: F1 hybrids.

What is an F1 hybrid?

They are varieties created by genetic crosses from different "parents". On the one hand, we choose a tenacious plant and on the other, a wilder, native plant with rich and complex aromas. These species should primarily combine organic faculties aimed at high resistance to disease, increased production by coffee tree, resistance to climate change and of course, the profile of the best cup of coffee. Not a small challenge!

Coffee nursery

Right now, some 50 new crosses are being tested in the WCR hubs. The researchers working there are screening the climate prevailing in many plantations around the world and working to define the five main climates of coffee growing. They will then test 35 varieties with the most significant signs of performance in 23 different countries. Thereafter, they will analyze their interaction with the environment to better understand why and how they adapt to certain extreme conditions or derogating from their usual conditions.

Environmental protection

These new plants will make no sense tomorrow or in the near future if nothing is done to protect the environment in which coffee grows.

One of the best solutions would be agroforestry (the way in which farmland is used for trees and has several advantages in terms of soil protection). We want to ensure that the largest coffee trees in the world return to their original terroir, in humid areas in the shade of forests. For many years, humans have made the mistake of growing coffee in full sun to have short-term results. This intensive mode stresses the plants, the compensation in fertilizer matures for this type of culture. By 2050 Latin America's coffee zones could be reduced by almost 60% if nothing is done. Demand growing, supply dwindling ... there's no secret: your coffee cup will be pretty rare soon.

Valérie Verhoef

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