World Coffee Research Aims to Prevent Coffee Extinction


Coffee berry disease (CBD) has damaged this plant's yield. [Photograph: Counter Culture Coffee on Flickr]

For the past few weeks, we've been exploring varieties of coffee: where they come from, what makes them distinct, and why they're important. That last point isn't just blowing smoke: Genetic diversity among Arabica coffee plants might be the key to preventing them from vanishing altogether, as diseases and pests are less likely to overpower multiple different strains of a species at once, each having its own degree of resistance or vulnerability.

Studies have shown that climate change, land-use struggles, and other social, economic, and environmental issues are posing a bit of a challenge to the maintenance (and increase) of our global supply of good quality, hardy, productive coffee plants. Some scientists, like botanist Dr. Aaron Davis, actually predict that East Africa's wild coffee varieties are facing extinction without some kind of strategic intervention.

That intervention might not come in the form of a masked cowboy on a white horse. Instead, it's a coffee-loving science geek's dream organization: World Coffee Research (WCR), a nonprofit dedicated to broadening our genetic understanding of Arabica coffee, in collaboration with Texas A&M University and other agricultural-study institutions.

"Our core program," says WCR executive director Dr. Tim Schilling, "is all about improving the volumes of coffee and the quality of those supplies of coffee. That's mainly through genetic improvement and variety development, germplasm enhancement, those kinds of things."

Folded into that program is a keen focus on the treatment and prevention of coffee-leaf rust, a disease that's currently threatening to reduce Central America's coffee yields by a staggering percentage—the International Coffee Organization (ICO) estimates the loss potential at 3 million 60-killogram bags of green beans. Some coffee-producing countries, like Guatemala, have declared the disease outbreak as a national emergency.


A coffee plant heavily affected by rust. [Photograph: Counter Culture Coffee on Flickr]

"There's a ton of things that can take a crop down from one year to another," says WCR treasurer Shawn Hamilton, who is also the green buyer for Sacremento, California's Java City. "There are a ton of things that haven't been addressed yet. Coffee could go away: The later you start, the less time you have."

Funding for the kind of extensive selection, analysis, and development of rust-resistant varieties that the WCR is undertaking obviously doesn't come easily. Most specialty-coffee companies aren't exactly sitting on scads of money, just sacks of green beans.

To address both the WCR's need and the industry's desire to help, the organization unveiled a check-off program, which would allow coffee roasters of all sizes to participate in the funding without having to cut a check that would take a chomp out of profits. Instead, a roaster interested in making contributions can request that the importing company apply a levy to each pound of green coffee on a contract—say, one half cent per. The extra dough is simply tacked on to each invoice, which allows the expense to practically disappear in the overall cost of goods; the importer forks over a more cumulative check to WCR on the roaster's behalf on the regular, either quarterly or annually.

While private citizens aren't as easily able to contribute, simpatico coffee-lovers can do their part by supporting coffees being sold by WCR sponsor members, like Allegro Coffee and Intelligentsia Coffee. (Next time you overdo it on caffeine, just say it was in the name of important scientific research.)

Most of all, everyone can contribute by simply being more engaged with coffee: Seek out quality, try new things, and remember to savor every drop, if only to make sure that it's not the last.