Read time: 6 minutes, 33 seconds.
World Coffee Research (WCR) is an agricultural research and development non-profit organisation. Their mission is to “Grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it”. Recently they held a webinar to report on their research over the past year and to share their plans for the future. This webinar was commentated by WCR founder, Dr Tim Schilling, WCR CEO Vern Long, WCR research director Dr George Kotch, Vice President of Coffee for Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Doug Welsh, and Hanna Neuschwander, WCR’s Director of Communications.
In this webinar, they covered;
- WCR’s evolution for those who haven’t heard of the organisation before.
- The global priorities surrounding the coffee industry.
- WCR’s 2019 highlights
- What the future holds for WCR and the global coffee industry
World Coffee Research Evolution
WCR was created by Dr Tim Schilling who when working on coffee quality in Rwanda in 2000 began experimenting by changing aspects of coffee production and documenting his findings by writing a literature review. It was through this process that he realised that there was almost no research done on this topic, and no effort being made to improve coffee. Because of this, it led him to the idea of creating a collaboration research & development organisation. In 2010 he held a congress with around 60 industry leaders and about 10 or 12 coffee scientists to discuss why and should the coffee industry invest in coffee research. They determined that it was necessary to do something about researching the coffee industry, and the process began to create WCR, subsequently launching in 2012.
Since their 2012 launch, they have achieved four out their five-step plan to get their research to the field. They are still in the development stage and are working to achieve reaching the technology transfer phase. They are making progress with their seed and nursery development programs which you can read about later in this blog post. It’s exciting to hear that their end goal is in the works, as the last step is what is most impactful to farmers and the coffee industry.
One of the main focus’s moving into WCR’s next phase in that pipeline seen above is navigating what the global coffee industry wants. So they held many in-depth interviews with partners so they could identify what people want from their research. What they found was that there were a few common priorities that people wanted to have a focus set on. The #1 focus was on farmer profitability and livelihood of the farmers. Other focuses include supply chain risk mitigation, quality through consistency & flavour, and climate adaption & mitigation. CEO Vern Long notes that when there’s a common agenda across many different segments of the coffee industry, it makes it very clear and very easy to discover what research needs to undertaken and what the focus should be on moving forward.
WCR’s 2019 Highlights include seeing their first F1 Hybrid harvest! If hybrid/breeding programs are something you are unfamiliar with, they are programs created to introduce new varieties of coffee. This is important to develop the quality of coffee and is specifically needed in the current time as the coffee industry battles climate change and devastating coffee rust diseases.
Their harvest trial includes 36 Crosses of hybrids with around 500 trees on a plot. Within those 36 crosses, multiples of the same cross have been planted in different sections of the plot. Even though the plot is small, there is still a variation in the land due to soil, drainage, shade and slope. Having multiple of the same cross in different locations is important because if you have a tree on a plot that yields a ton of cherries, you have to determine if it is because its a sunnier spot, or if its because it has superior genetics. In order to know that and get rid of the factors of soil, drainage etc. you randomly distribute the trees through the plot. They then average the data to see which ones are performing.
In the image below the multiples of the 36 crosses are colour coded to keep track of them all!
A team of 4 pickers harvest about 60 trees in a five day. Their process is to pick only the ripest cherries and weigh what they can harvest from one tree. They then meticulously track the weight on a table to collect data. Each tree gets harvested about 3-4 times in a given harvest cycle. The totals are added, and from that, they can create a clear picture of the total yield a tree has over an entire harvest cycle. At the end of each day, they put together all the cherries from one cross-type which are then sent to the mill for micro processing.
As they collect data through the harvesting process, they’re making other observations as well, such as these two trees (image below) that are on the same plot but that are clearly performing differently. As you’re breeding these crosses, you’re looking for things that are going to matter to consumers and farmers. Uniform ripening (which you can see more in the image on the right) matters because it makes it easier to harvest, it takes less time to harvest a single tree. Which is good as labour is the single most significant cost in coffee operation, and a better harvest reduces this cost.
After processing, the next step is quality evaluations. WCR was supposed to begin this step with some of their partners in Chicago in March, however, had to cancel because of the coronavirus. They are moving to re-figure out a way to get the quality evaluations done soon, as it’s vital information.
The next step after that is looking at all data, such as the performance data, yield data, disease data and quality data, analyse it and try to figure out which crosses are performing the best and which are performing the worst. This year’s aim is to identify the least performing crosses and remove it from the trial. You can see in the image above on the photo on the left is not working, so it won’t continue with the trial. Eventually, after eliminating over a few harvest cycles, you can really see which crosses perform well across years and locations.
Another highlight is the release of two nursery guides. Nursery development and improvement of quality standards is a focus that WCR has become more deeply involved in, in the last 1-2 years. It’s an opportunity for them to address what they believe is a hidden crisis in the coffee sector. Worldwide, there’s a lack of systems for delivering high-quality coffee planting materials to farmers. It matters because a shocking number of trees produced in nurseries are sick, are meek, are of unknown genetics and are not traceable. Even when you have trees that are going out that do survive, they are poor quality seedlings which when planted, stay in the soil and can harm the land for decades. On the opposite end, a high-quality tree planted can have a positive impact for decades which means more education needs to be put out to the world on why farmers should be investing in high-quality trees. It’s an investment to their farm and will lead to higher profitability. WCR states that bad nurseries are a crisis that they think the coffee industry is just beginning to understand and become aware of.
In the future for WCR is the focus on demand-led breeding. This means creating crosses and changing the genetic code of coffee to be more suited to what the consumers are looking for. Dr George Kotch, who has over 35 years of agricultural research experience, hopes that he can bring some of the best practices that you see in high performing organisations to WCR and the coffee community. To give an idea of what this looks like, he provides an example of a past-project where they reduced the size of watermelons. They did this because they discovered that people were buying fewer watermelons, so they researched and looked at the consumers and found that the size in the US has dropped to less than two people per household. So people stopped buying these massive watermelons that they would have just to throw away. They then modified the watermelons to make them grow smaller and with flavours that the market was asking for.
So what they want to do with coffee is take that same concept and look at the characteristics and flavours that the consumers are asking for and modify the product to be able to meet that demand.
World Coffee Research is doing some excellent work for the coffee industry. It’s great to see where they started and how much progress they’ve already made. We’re super excited to see where their current trial takes them and observe in the coming years the positive impact it will have on many coffee farms. We’ve got to be honest, we are slightly sceptical about the modification of coffee aspect to meet consumer demands as we love the flavours coffee has already, but if it makes a positive impact on the coffee industry then we support it!