Coffee – A Wake-Up Call 1

The warm and welcoming smell of roasting coffee fills the living room.  The aromas of honey and chocolate are pervasive as the sun shines in and friends discuss the various tasting notes. The fruity and sugary notes of the honey processed pacamara, a coffee varietal derived in El Salvador, provide a welcome background to friends chatting about their weekend activities.  Ceviche and a soda made with coffee cherries appeared with much excitement and applause.

At the center of all of this is Eduardo Hernandez, the founder and managing director at Santa Cristina Specialty Coffees.  This man has coffee running in his veins as his family owns shade-grown arabica coffee farms in El Salvador.  Here in Vienna, he is a coffee importer who is passionate about his product.

Photo courtesy of Santa Cristina Specialty Coffee

The age-old debate

Not only is Hernandez bringing in delicious coffees grown in a traditional and ecologically friendly manner to Vienna, he is also experimenting with products made from all parts of the coffee fruit.  Have you ever tasted tea made from dried coffee cherries?  It is light, crisp, and deliciously fruity.  Coffee blossoms, which require precise timing to harvest, make a light sweet floral tea.   The parchment surrounding the bean makes a strong tea with no tannin aftertaste experienced with black teas.

Hernandez provided information to us about roasting times, caffeine content, the growing regions in El Salvador, the tasting notes, and the list goes on.  I realized that I did not know that much about coffee.

Economics 101

I set out to find some information on the internet.  Here are some basic facts about coffee.  It is the second largest exported commodity in the world; second only to oil.  Most coffee grows in countries located between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer; it is colloquially known as the “bean belt”.  There are two main types of coffee trees, Arabica and Robusta.  Arabica counts for 70% of the worlds coffee production and consumption.  For more interesting facts about coffee you can go to The Oatmeal’s website.

Economically, coffee is very important.  Especially for the large number of developing countries between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.  And it is often under threat from disease, adverse weather conditions, and poor trade agreements.  Arabica is also the more delicate of the two types with no innate resistances.

The teas and soda mentioned earlier, are a valuable opportunity to generate greater income for farmers in the developing world.  Using the complete plant and selling diverse products from the same harvest is a huge economic development, there is one harvest for three distinct products and creates less food waste overall.

Coffee is so financially important that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has partnered with scientists all over the world, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to boost the resistance of Arabica coffee to disease.  More specifically, they are looking to secure the income of farmers by creating mutations in the gene sequences that create resistance to coffee leaf rust.

Science to the Rescue

Enter geneticist Brad Till.  He was one of the many scientists that worked at the IAEA on the project.  He also happens to know Hernandez well and that was how I could spend an enjoyable hour chatting about mutations in genetic sequences of polyploids.

Polyploids are cells that contain more than two paired sets of chromosomes.  Many plants fall within this category, including coffee.

There are three main methods to induce a genetic mutation in a plant.  The first, and the one we have been using the longest, is interbreeding.  This involves selective pollination from the plant with desirable traits to another plant.  This has worked well for most cereal grains and most fast growing plants.

The second method is molecular.  This covers a range of technologies that can be used  to excise a full sequence and replace it with the desired genetic sequence, or to edit as little as one nucleotide in an existing gene to fix a defect. This latter approach is known as CRISPR.  One of the best explanations is in this video.

A third method is to use radiation to induce mutations quickly by irradiating seeds or other plant materials.  “We have been creating genetic mutations in plants using radiation since the 1920s when ionizing radiation was used to create mutations in tobacco plants” says Till.

“Ionizing radiation and CRISPR are especially useful for crops that take a while to mature.  Grains take three to four months to mature and you see results of hybridization quickly.  Coffee takes two to three years to reproduce and hybridization can be unpredictable.”

However, Till recognizes that genetic improvement is a sensitive issue, even if it is for a good cause.  “Labels are important from a farm perspective as certain labels can make your crop more valuable.”  The converse is also true.  “It is an important source of income and it deserves a lot of attention.”

“You cannot have life without genetic modifications.  We have had 10,000 years of human-driven genetic modification to plants and animals in our history.  There are often cultivars in nature that may already have the traits for which we are looking, you just need to know what you need.”

The project is still on-going.  Hopefully, the community of scientists that have put their heads together on this will see some significant progress.  I learned a great deal because of that sunny afternoon spent with Hernandez, tasting coffees from all over El Salvador.


Header image credits royalty free

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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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