Protecting the Future of Coffee with Science and Outreach

Although it may seem like coffee simply appears on the supermarket shelf or in your local shop without much fanfare, in reality it is a complex global crop produced by a vast network of mostly small farmers — and one that is facing increased peril from changing climate patterns and other factors.

That’s why the global coffee industry came together in 2010 to form World Coffee Research, a nonprofit organization working to ensure the future of coffee. The organization operates in 27 countries to further its mission to grow, protect and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it.

Community Coffee Company has been a strong supporter of World Coffee Research since its inception. Matt Saurage, Community Coffee’s fourth-generation owner, is a founding board member of the group.

“Coffee faces many threats and an uncertain future. Weather conditions, diseases and other barriers to quality are a real problem for the millions of coffee producers,” Saurage says. “Scientific research takes time and is an investment to generate the know-how and technologies that can provide viable, sustainable farming practices over time.”

As World Coffee Research works to further its mission of supporting higher quality coffee, more productive coffee farms and more sustainable and dignified livelihoods for coffee farmers, the organization begins by focusing on the coffee plants themselves.

“We are fundamentally an agricultural research organization,” says Hanna Neuschwander, communications director. “The way we approach our mission is to study the crop, the plant and the coffee.”

The organization’s work in coffee-growing regions around the world extends beyond simple botany and into initiatives that directly support better technologies and farmer profitability. “You can’t think about the crop or yield as something separate from the people who grow it,” Neuschwander says. “You have to think about them as part of the same symbiotic relationship.”

Climate Weather Patterns Present a Real Threat

Changing weather patterns, increased temperatures and higher rates of disease and insects could create a potentially disastrous decline in the supply of coffee in the coming decades.

In 2012, a massive outbreak of coffee leaf rust — a devastating fungal disease that damages, and ultimately destroys, the coffee tree — severely impacted the industry in Central America, putting an estimated 1.7 million people out of work in the region. Scientists believe the overall rise of temperatures and the associated weather patterns created a more favorable environment for the disease, leading to the widespread outbreak. “It had a tremendous human impact,” Neuschwander says.

Fighting Back

World Coffee Research is working to prevent disasters like these through a wide range of research initiatives, including lab work to identify key genes and genetic markers for resistance to drought and disease, as well as field work to develop new varieties of coffee. The goal is to create coffee plants that will allow the industry to thrive around the world even through more challenging conditions.

The organization is also working with coffee companies, nongovernmental organizations, government agencies and other groups to help farmers gain access to the new varieties of coffee and other technological improvements, as well as education about these vital tools.

“You can have the best plants in the world, but if they’re stuck in the lab and no farmer can get them in their field it doesn’t really matter,” Neuschwander says. “It’s about being part of a very large global ecosystem that helps get some of this scientific progress out in the field.”

Supporting Farmers’ Profitability

In order to produce more and better coffee, coffee farmers must earn sustainable profits. World Coffee Research is spearheading multiple initiatives around the globe to help farmers earn more from their crops — from studies to help producers develop better business strategies to scientific demonstrations of best practices for specific regions.

A persistent challenge for farmers and the industry as a whole is the lack of scientific data on coffee production in different climates and regions. Neuschwander says small farmers, many of whom operate under the slimmest of margins, often struggle to determine the most effective varieties of coffee to plant in their area.

To solve this problem World Coffee Research is working to install trial plots of coffee plants in more than 1,000 fields worldwide to gather data on the best-performing varieties in different conditions. Farmers will be able to use that hard data to secure loans for expansion and ultimately to produce more and better coffee.

“We’re going to be able to see all across all different countries and environments around the world which varieties are doing best for farmers,” Neuschwander says. “It may sound really basic, but [the research] doesn’t exist. We are doing this really essential work that just hasn’t been done before."