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World Coffee Research (WCR) is bringing attention to a new coffee variety named Starmaya that may offer a glimpse into a much brighter future for coffee production.

Starmaya is a F1 hybrid that is propagated by seed, rather than through biotechnology.

In 2001, researchers from CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) collaborated in a coffee breeding project with Ecom and noticed a male-sterile Arabica plant at the CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza) germplasm bank for coffee in Costa Rica. Breeders crossed it with Marsellesa, a newer-generation rust-resistant variety, and after observing its good performance in field trials in Nicaragua, Ecom has released the variety.

“What it could mean for coffee producers is widespread access to an elite class of varieties that will dramatically reshape the industry in the decades to come,” WCR said in a statement.

As in other crops, F1 hybrids have the potential to combine traits that matter most to farmers – higher yields and disease resistance – with the trait that matters most to consumers—taste.

However, F1 hybrids are limited by a key constraint. Currently, they can only be produced by technically sophisticated nurseries, of which there are only a handful in the world. Although these varieties are considered “best in class,” almost no farmers have access to them. WCR is hoping Starmaya may change that.

Until now, the only way to efficiently reproduce F1 hybrids for farmers has been through clonal propagation, which must be done in laboratories. There are few labs that produce coffee hybrids commercially in the world, and the cost can be double that of plants reproduced by seed. None of the existing labs produce more than 1 million seedlings per year.

Coffee is typically sold to farmers as seed. In crops like corn, F1 hybrid seeds are created through manual controlled pollination. WCR says this is not economically feasible in coffee due to the biology of the plant. In order to produce F1 hybrid seeds in coffee, a workaround – the inability of one parent to produce pollen called male sterility – is needed. It is this process that led to the creation of Starmaya.

“Starmaya represents a major breakthrough in coffee breeding that suggests the main constraint on the widespread production of F1 hybrids for farmers around the world may soon fall away,” says WCR.

The global research center will incorporate Starmaya into many of its research programs, including the Global Coffee Monitoring Platform, a network of hundreds of on-farm technology trials, and into any new locations of the International Multilocation Variety Trial, the world’s largest coffee seed exchange.

So far, Starmaya is the only F1 hybrid from seed, but researchers are actively looking for more varieties exhibiting male sterility that could be used in breeding.

The new variety will be tested in farmer fields in 2017.

“The creation of Starmaya is a signal that the future may be close at hand,” WCR says.

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