Good Genes

PProtecting Coffee’s Wild Heritage

Many of the world’s coffee genebanks are underfunded and under threat, yet the future of coffee depends on protecting these precious genetic resources. So what would a better global conservation system look like in the future and how can the industry support it?

In a humid tropical forest that shrouds a sacred mountain on the African island of Madagascar, a man named Prince can lead you to the last six plants of Coffea montis-sacri known to be growing in the wild. But first, you must go to nearby Ambolotara and sit down with the village chief to ask permission to visit this sacred site.

If he grants permission, you must first honor the ancestral tomb in the forest with a ceremony. Then you can walk into the understory on Mount Vatovavi and see for yourself: One, two, three, four, five, six. The last wild C. montis-sacri on earth.

Sarada Krishnan knows this because she went there, and she counted. Krishnan is Director of Horticulture at the Denver Botanic Gardens, and an expert in wild coffee. She made this journey in 2007 when she was completing her PhD on Madagascan coffee species, known collectively as Mascarocoffea, of which there are nearly 59 species known. Montis-sacri means “sacred mountain”. Like many sacred things, it is profoundly rare — C. montis-sacri is critically endangered. Yet, it could be worse. The forest that C. montis-sacri calls home is still standing because of its status as a sacred site. If the forest were gone, C. montis-sacri would likely be extinct.

There may yet be hope for C. montis-sacri and the many other threatened species of Mascarocoffea. In fact, besides the six plants that live in the Mount Vatovavi forest, a few copies of C. montis-sacri live nearby at the FOFIFA Kianjavato Coffee Research Station (FOFIFA is the Malagasy acronym for National Center of Applied Research and Rural Development), one of the most important coffee genebanks in the world. Its importance to coffee is not lessened by the fact that almost no one in coffee has heard of it.

To reach Kianjavato, you first have to fly to Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. Then it’s a 12-hour drive on winding, pockmarked roads (five years ago the drive took eight hours, but road conditions have declined precipitously). Then, in the pitch black of night in the jungle, you have to pick your way across a river on a log with no handrails (the bridge washed out a few years ago, and there is no money to rebuild it). The next morning, when it’s light, you can set out to find C. montis-sacri among the rows and rows of different coffee species housed in light forest understory. To find which row to look in, you consult the research station’s handwritten log. There is one copy.

Genebanks like FOFIFA in Kianjavato are, essentially, libraries for coffee’s genetic diversity, storing and making accessible the precious information encoded in a given plant’s DNA the same way a library protects and democratizes the knowledge housed in great books. But imagine if your local library were this hard to reach.

Coffee’s Vulnerable Cousins

Kianjavato’s remoteness and its reliance on outdated technologies (handwritten catalogs) aren’t the only challenges it faces. In the last three years, miners digging for precious minerals have appeared in the region and begun illegal digging on the station’s grounds. The coffee trees at FOFIFA in Kianjavato are kept alive through the dedicated efforts of a small staff. But even with their Herculean efforts, the station does not have secure funding. Indeed, between 1982 and 2002, the Malagasy government ceased all funding to support the site. Without it, many trees died and were not replaced.

What is in danger of being lost? FOFIFA’s genetically diverse collection of coffee trees includes not just C. montis-sacri, but also 43 other endemic Madagascan coffee species — many of which are not housed in any other genebank collections in the world.

It’s highly unlikely that most of the species found at FOFIFA would ever be farmed or consumed by people as coffee. Most of them would be undrinkable. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of these wild coffee species.

Mascaracoffea are all “crop wild relatives” — cousins to the species we are more familiar with because they are in widespread cultivation around the world. Coffee is just one of dozens of crops — from wheat to rice — that will likely need an infusion of genes from these cousins able to withstand disease and drought as the climate changes.

But these cousins are threatened. In recent years, species including C. buxifolia, C. humblotiana, C. mauritiana, C. vohemarensis and nine others have been lost in the genebank collections. Many of them died because they evolved in the arid regions of western Madagascar and don’t grow well in the humid climate of Kianjavato. These, then, are special losses. Now more than ever, coffee researchers are looking to understand the mechanisms that help some plants tolerate droughts, and to do so they are looking to species that evolved in dry climates. With climate change, droughts are predicted to be the future in many current coffee regions.

Saving coffee’s wild relatives from destruction also might have impacts closer to the cup: Madagascan species are well known to researchers because — unlike C. arabica and C. canephora — they are naturally caffeine-free. For years, various efforts in Brazil, Japan and elsewhere have been made to use Mascarocoffea to breed new caffeine-free varieties that are as tasty as arabica and produce yields high enough to merit cultivation. So far, efforts have failed.

As technologies for studying coffee’s genetics evolve and become cheaper, it’s possible that future researchers will be able to unlock the mysteries of Mascarocoffea, and, through breeding, use them to benefit the coffees we do consume.

Preserving Coffee, Forever

Kianjavato isn’t the only coffee genebank in the world struggling to protect its resources. Similar banks in Cote D’Ivoire and Ethiopia are underfunded and under threat. “User collections” — genebanks located where coffee is actively cultivated, like Brazil and Colombia — tend to be more secure, but they also contain fewer wild relative species. Information is not shared widely across the collections. Only one, CATIE in Costa Rica, has a publicly available list of the coffees in its collection. Very few of the coffees in any of the collections have been widely studied. Some have barely been described. Many of the coffees in them are not “backed up” (duplicated in second sites) meaning that if a site were destroyed in a cyclone or other major weather event, some of the plants could be lost to humankind forever.

The global system for protecting coffee’s precious genetic resources looks less like a system, and more like something barely held together with spit and tape.

Yet the future of coffee depends on protecting these genetic resources. So what would a better global conservation system look like in the future? In 2016, World Coffee Research and the Global Crop Diversity Trust came together to try to imagine this. World Coffee Research engaged Dr Krishnan to lead the effort, which included a study of published information about the world’s coffee genebanks, a survey of all the major banks, and site visits to eight key collections, including FOFIFA and CATIE. Together with experts from Crop Trust, which has worked to preserve dozens of crops including maize and rice, a strategy to preserve coffee’s genetic resources forever was crafted and launched at the Re:co Symposium in Seattle in April.

The origin collections at the heart of the global conservation strategy for coffee require constant and long-term maintenance in the field, and even brief disruptions in funding — as often occur now — result in permanent losses. The vehicle for such funding is already in place: Crop Trust operates a global endowment fund into which donors place money that pays out over time to ensure funding in perpetuity. Crop Trust and WCR estimate it will cost about US$1m a year to support the most important collections. A global endowment of US$25m, paying out 4% per year, could provide that ongoing funding forever, without the need to scrape together funding year to year.

The origin collections at the heart of the global conservation strategy for coffee require constant and long-term maintenance in
the field, and even brief disruptions in funding—as often occur now—result in permanent losses. The vehicle for such funding is already
in place: Crop Trust operates a global endowment fund into which donors place money that pays out over time to ensure funding in perpetuity.

Such endowment funding can and would only support collections that meet certain conditions: that the accessions held in the collection are of global significance, supportive of a rational, cost effective, and sustainable global system, and that the accessions held are available to users with appropriate benefit sharing. Currently, only one coffee collection, CATIE, meets all these eligibility criteria, but other origin collections could meet the criteria with some assistance.

The largest roadblock currently to broader participation, and one of the high priority actions identified in the strategy, is the need to work out a system for fairly and equitably sharing the benefits that result from these genebanks’ collections. For example, if a coffee from one of the collections is used to create a new variety that is subsequently commercialized, the genebank should receive a share of that value. Historically in coffee and many other crops, especially in the colonial era, valuable plants were simply “removed” or “collected” (a polite way of saying “stolen”), without compensation ever being paid to the countries or institutions where those plants originated. Fortunately, today there is widespread international recognition that this is not an appropriate approach. Establishing a benefit-sharing system is complex, but essential for ensuring that genebanks would participate in a global system of genetic resource preservation.

Other priorities include making sorely needed upgrades to operations and facilities at origin genebanks to meet international standards and to facilitate their routine operations, and then bringing those collections into the 21st century by collecting and storing essential information about them in open-data systems. It’s also essential to create “safety backups” of the collections in case of catastrophic events capable of wiping out an entire collection in one fell swoop, for example a devastating cyclone.

We are used to thinking of the coffee value chain starting at the farm. But it does not. It starts long before the farm — in the forests where these unique genetic resources originate. If we do not preserve coffee’s wild heritage, the genetic legacy that is essential to the future of the crop, every part of the value chain that comes after is profoundly risked.

HANNA NEUSCHWANDER is Communications Director at World Coffee Research.