World Coffee Research’s family reunion

For centuries, families have traced their long lines of heritage, often discovering siblings they never knew existed and distant cousins to add to their Christmas card list. 

Over the past two years, scientists and researchers from World Coffee Research’s (WCR) collaborative research and development program have been documenting coffee’s family tree. They have compiled data about the main Arabica coffee varieties grown by farmers around the world and aggregated the information into a global cataglogue.

In 2016, WCR, a non-profit collaborative research and development program, released the first edition of the coffee varieties catalogue. In February 2018, it revealed a major update to its Arabica Coffee Varieties catalogue, adding varieties from six African counties: Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The catalogue previously only covered varieties commonly found in and around Central America. 

“The catalogue is a living document,” says Christophe Montagnon, WCR Scientific Director and lead author on the catalogue. “As we continue to expand its global reach, we hope it supports more and more farmers in one of the most difficult and important decisions they make for the long-term sustainability of their farms,” 

 The updated catalogue contains 53 total varieties, with expanded histories for many of them. The updated version introduces 11 varieties: Bourbon Mayaguez 139, Bourbon Mayaguez 71, Jackson 2/1257, K7, KP423, SL28, Harrar Rwanda, Mibirizi, Nyasaland, Pop3303/21, SL14, SL34, Catimor 129, Batian, RAB C15, and Ruiru 11.

To create the catalogue, WCR worked with coffee experts from across Central America and Africa, with funding from the United States Agency for International Development and Utz/Rainforest Alliance. The updated catalogue is the result of visits to 16 countries and interviews with nearly 180 people from more than 100 private and public bodies involved in the national or regional coffee sectors of Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

Hanna Neuschwander, WCR Communications Director and a lead catalogue author, says of all the newly added African varieties, only Ruiru and Batian are “improved” or newly developed in the past 20 years. Both were developed in Kenya.  

Another interesting addition to the updated listing is new information on Arabica’s genetic background. Thanks to extensive WCR DNA fingerprinting analysis, it’s now known that the famous Kenyan SL34 and SL14 varieties, which were previously thought to descend from Bourbon, actually descend from the Typica genetic group (but are not the same as the distinct Typica variety). 

“Varieties in each group are genetically similar, like cousins, but they are not the same,” Hanna says.

In order to discriminate between varieties, WCR conducts DNA fingerprinting. DNA is extracted from leaf samples of different trees. Molecular markers are checked against a WCR reference database. 

“DNA fingerprinting to identify varieties is very powerful, but we can’t identify everything just yet,”  Hanna says. “Sometimes we have samples mailed to us that turn out to be something completely unique and not matching anything on our database. Sometimes people think they known what a tree is, and it turns out to be wildly different. There are a lot of reasons for this: mislabelling, or information being passed down poorly.”

Boubon and Typica variety groups originate from small, related populations that travelled from Ethiopia, to Yemen, and then to India. With each major geographical movement, often only one or a small handful of seeds from each group was taken to new places, resulting in genetic bottlenecking – the severe reduction of genetic diversity – and led to the emergence of the individual Bourbon and Typica varieties.

After the Typica group was introduced to Indonesia from India, a single coffee plant was taken in 1706 from Java to Amsterdam and given a home in the botanical gardens. This single plant gave rise to the Typica variety (just one variety among many in the Typica genetic group) that colonised the Americas during the 18th century. But diverse populations of the Typica group remained in India, and from there, made their way to Africa. In Africa today, there are many Typica-related varieties, such as SL34 and SL14, that are distinct from the unique Typica variety that became dominant in Latin America in the 1800s.

DNA fingerprinting shows that old Indian varieties known as Coorg and Kent are part of the Bourbon genetic group, and not Typica as was first thought. Hanna says this indicates the first seeds sent out of Yemen to India by Baba Budan in 1670 likely included both the Bourbon and Typica groups, and not only Typica. This may mean the Typica branch separated from Bourbon when the Dutch brought seeds in 1696 and 1699 from India, not from Yemen, as is often told.

The further we dig into the information about each variety, the more we discover about its origin. In some cases we are rewriting the history of what we understood to be true about certain varieties,” Hanna says. 

This is mostly of academic interest. For coffee farmers, the main value of the updated catalogue is helping remove barriers to information and access to better plant material.

The catalogue is freely available for anyone to download, print, distribute, or to access online. 

“The openness of the information is not something that most coffee farmers have previously had access to,” Hanna says. 

The catalogue is also integrated with a registry of nurseries that participate in the WCR Verified program. Through the program, third-party auditors inspect nurseries to ensure they are producing healthy and genetically pure varieties. Coffee farmers can locate a variety of interest and find out if there are any WCR Verified nurseries producing it. Currently, only a small handful of nurseries are verified for four varieties in Central America, but WCR expects the number to grow substantially in the coming years.

“Imagine going shopping to the local nursery and having a dozen or more options for varieties that are suited your region,” Hanna says. “Maybe you want something specific to resist leaf rust, withstand dry conditions or capable of super high cup quality. You can choose the variety or mix of varieties that meet your needs, and be sure that they are healthy and genetically pure when you buy them.”

Currently, that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world for coffee producers, and it won’t happen in the next two years, but Hanna says it is the future.

Currently, farmers have a few ways to source seed stock. Smallerholder farmers commonly save their own seeds by putting aside cherries and germinating the seeds. It is a cost-saving approach, but the risk is not knowing exactly what variety you have, or simply having an outdated variety that isn’t well suited to the farmer’s situation. 

For example, if the farmer is in an area prone to coffee leaf rust, and the varieties they have planted are susceptible to the disease, saving that seed will ensure that their trees will suffer losses to the disease for the next 30 years. 

This article appears in the April edition of BeanScene magazine. To read the article in full, click here