WCR’s largest collaborative breeding programme disseminates over … – Perfect Daily Grind

Specialty coffee has long been fascinated by new and unique arabica varieties, as well as rare coffee species. Whether it’s WBC competitors using “forgotten” and exclusive coffees or hybrid varieties designed to help producers adapt to climate change, these coffees have an important purpose and special place in the sector.
However, we wouldn’t have some of these unique varieties without extensive research and breeding programmes. One example is World Coffee Research’s (WCR) Innovea Global Coffee Breeding Network, which first launched in November 2022. Through the network, WCR and its partners have created new and improved breeding populations. These will be available to producers in several coffee-growing countries.
On 30 August 2023, WCR announced that the first 5,000 “genetically unique” seeds developed by the Innovea Global Coffee Breeding Network were sent to seven partner countries. This marks a major milestone in the world’s largest collaborative coffee breeding programme in 50 years. Potentially, it could also lead to substantial change in the global specialty coffee sector.
I spoke to Hanna Neuschwander to find out more.
You may also like our article on WCR showing more interest in robusta.
Around the world, there are many coffee research organisations and breeding programmes. One of the biggest collaborative research programmes, however, is World Coffee Research’s Innovea Global Coffee Breeding Network. 
First officially announced at the 2022 Sintercafe International Coffee Week, the Innovea network currently includes partners in nine countries:
The network receives funding from more than 175 international WCR members. Through this funding, WCR builds on years of research to develop and implement science-based solutions for sustainable coffee production.
Essentially, Innovea allows participating countries to have open access to new and unique coffee genetic materials. They can then use these for final variety development and/or continuous breeding.
As part of a recent announcement, WCR stated it sent over 5,000 seeds to seven of its nine partner organisations. The institute describes this as “the first step in a global, collaborative effort to transform the future of coffee”.
Each country received an average of 800 to 900 seeds. The end goal of the project is to plant 300 mature coffee trees in each of the nine Innovea research plots. Moreover, all 5,000 seeds are genetically unique from one another. This opens up a world of possibilities to develop new coffee varieties for a number of purposes.
Hanna Neuschwander is the Strategy and Communications Director at World Coffee Research.
“This is the first time in over 50 years that global coffee breeding programmes are receiving a significant amount of new breeding materials that they are free to use for their own variety development,” she says. “The seeds shipped to participating countries are the future of coffee production.
“The ‘best’ seeds will become new varieties that can help farmers remain profitable and resilient in the face of the climate crisis,” she adds. “These varieties will play a critical role in supporting quality and sustainable coffee production for decades to come.”
It’s certainly early days for the Innovea programme. But partner countries have already initiated genetic testing of each individual plant. WCR says it will work with partners to make final selections of which seeds will be planted in its research plots, and will begin collecting data on the thousands of individual plants. Some of these will be planted as early as September 2023.
“The seeds shipped so far are only the first wave of the project,” Hanna tells me. “The goal of Innovea is to provide new batches of improved plants to participating countries every three to six years – each of which will be better than the last.”
In a press release, two WCR partners discussed their participation in the project.
“With this network, we will be able to achieve results that would not be possible while conducting breeding within the borders of a single country,” said Xinia Chaves Quiros, Director of ICAFE. “Costa Rica is very excited to participate. It will allow us to develop more and better varieties and make them available to farmers faster.”
Dr. Senthil Kumar is the Director of Research at the CCRI.
“The network brings together a wide diversity of high-performing varieties from Africa, Asia, and the Americas that have never been bred together before,” he said. “India is enthusiastic about the opportunities this network provides for us to develop varieties that address farmers’ needs and to ensure our success in achieving climate resilience.”
It will take years for WCR to assess the full impact of the Innovea breeding programme. But without a doubt, the network presents an exciting opportunity for the coffee industry to become even more resilient and sustainable.
Moreover, against the ever-growing threat of climate change, this research has never been so important.
“Innovea is the first time that countries from the world’s three major coffee-producing regions are working together – despite competing in the global marketplace – to accelerate genetic advancements and climate resilience,” Hanna explains.
“The varieties we grow today are the result of research and breeding conducted between 20 and 100 years ago,” she adds. “The breeding we do today will be essential for the children and grandchildren of today’s coffee farmers and drinkers.”
In recent years, many studies have indicated climate change is one of the biggest challenges the coffee industry faces. Alongside research which suggests rising average global temperatures will reduce areas suitable for growing coffee by up to 50% by 2050, other studies also present a stark picture of the future of coffee production.
For instance, between 1980 and 2020, a 2023 research paper in the journal PLOS Climate found the frequency of “climate hazards” (including extreme high temperatures) had increased in the top 12 coffee-producing countries. What’s more, five of the six “most hazardous years” occurred between 2010 and 2020. Clearly, climate change is an issue the coffee industry has to take seriously – or else risk irreversible damage.
“The multi-billion dollar global coffee business rests on the success of farmers. But to be successful, farmers need to have access to higher-yielding and more tolerant coffee plants that are also tailored to local climates and specific market demands,” Hanna says. “Right now, farmers’ choices are severely constrained because coffee faces a decades-long innovation crisis.
“In most countries, farmers have access to only a small handful of different varieties – many of which date back to breeding programmes in the 1960s and 1970s, or even older,” she adds. “Creating more and better varieties to give farmers more choice is critical to sustain production, adapt to climate change, and reduce environmental footprint and carbon emissions of coffee production.”
Although arabica makes up around 60% of the total coffee market, specialty coffee’s preference for this species makes the sector particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. 
Several studies indicate that in the years to come, arabica will be impossible to grow in many areas where it’s currently produced. Not only will this affect yields and stockpiles, but also quality – meaning specialty coffee will either need to adapt or find new alternatives.
While exciting new varieties and species like Coffea eugenioides and Ombligon have made a splash at competitions and high-end coffee shops, they are not the end solution to creating a more sustainable coffee industry. As well as producing smaller yields, producers also typically need access to more resources and formal training programmes to grow these coffees. In turn, production is incredibly difficult to scale effectively.
The same could be said for Innovea’s 5,000 genetically unique coffee varieties. Of course we don’t yet know the potential of these coffees, and it will take years for us to know just how much they could benefit producers.
Hanna, however, points out that Innovea doesn’t focus on existing rare arabica varieties and robusta, but rather aims to create new varieties. Ultimately, backed by decades of research, the breeding programme could produce varieties that could transform the future of the specialty coffee industry for the better.
The coffee industry faces many challenges, but climate change is arguably the most pressing of all. Only time will tell just how extreme the impact will be on the global coffee industry. Breeding programmes like Innovea, however, play a key role in understanding how we need to adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.
If we want specialty coffee to thrive, the industry needs to evolve in line with the issues ahead. And new and more resilient varieties could be one of the solutions.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether new varieties will help to safeguard the future of Vietnamese coffee production.
Perfect Daily Grind
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Tasmin is the Managing Editor at Perfect Daily Grind, and responsible for the publication’s weekly news coverage.
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