Coffee is the world's most valuable tropical export crop, and some 26 million farmers depend on coffee cultivation to feed their families. This huge global business is under threat because the coffee plant is peculiarly vulnerable to our warming climate. Rising temperatures and erratic rainfall have already sent yields plummeting in key coffee-growing countries. The hunt is on to future-proof the coffee industry.
One promising new tool in the quest to build a sustainable coffee production is the coffee genome. Advances in Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technologies have sequenced the genome of Coffea canephora (better known as robusta) uncovering many of the genes involved in making caffeine and aromas.
As temperatures rise, coffee farming is being pushed to higher altitudes, and the total area suitable for coffee cultivation is shrinking. Climate models predict that rising temperatures in the tropics will be matched with changing rainfalls, more extreme weather, and more frequent El Niño and La Niña events. These expected shifts in seasonal rains and cloud cover would hit coffee production hard. Advances in capturing and using the abundant genetic resources in coffee breeding programs are essential for sustainable coffee production.
Ideally, the genome will accelerate the development of climate-proof varieties that can sustain the dramatic impact of climate change on coffee plantations. What’s more, this coffee genome can be engineered against the spread of new pests and diseases.
Significant advances in understanding of the coffee genome must be achieved to increase quality, yield, and protect the crop from major losses caused by insect pests, diseases and abiotic stress related to climatic change. A similar genome sequencing was done for cocoa by IBM. The cocoa crop is under intense pressure from climate change - already roughly one-third of the world’s entire cocoa crop is lost to drought, disease and pests.
As much as I love both coffee and chocolate, and my research is in the sustainability and poverty alleviation potential of both these industries, I just hope that such genetic engineering can be delivered responsibly. It is important to guarantee the future of the coffee and cocoa crops, but I sincerely hope that the biological knowledge will be shared with the smallholders and farmers that depend on coffee and cocoa for their livelihoods.
Scientists have sequenced the genome of Coffea canephora, better known as robusta. Armed with this knowledge, growers and blenders could make higher quality, tastier varieties of coffee, and help to protect the plants against climate change and disease. "It's like somebody turned on the lights," says Tim Schilling, executive director of World Coffee Research, a scientific collaboration formed by the coffee industry and based at Texas A&M University. He says coffee lovers could see the impacts of this scientific feat in around five years.