July 8, 2020

Combating Climate Change’s Impact With Hybrid Coffee Varieties


Changing weather patterns, pests and diseases, deforestation, and rising temperatures are just some of the environmental factors threatening worldwide coffee production. It’s estimated that by 2050, we may lose as much as 40% of the cultivable land for coffee – exposing today’s coffee industry to an unprecedented challenge.

One possible solution to the above could be switching to new hybrid varieties that offer resilience without compromising on quality. In the early 1990s, CIRAD began selecting F1 Arabica hybrids with different partners such as CATIE, PROMECAFE and ECOM. This work led to the selection and dissemination of various high-performance hybrids whose names are beginning to be known, such as H1-Centroamericano, H3, Starmaya, and Cassiopeia. Since 2017 CIRAD has been coordinating the BREEDCAFS (Breeding Coffee for Agroforestry Systems) Horizon 2020 Project, which is funded by the European Union1

BREEDCAFS’ aim is to develop new breeding strategies that create coffee varieties that are both more resilient to environmental stress associated with climate change and more suited to agroforestry conditions. While agroforestry systems offer benefits for growers, many traditional coffee varieties are not suitable for cultivation under shade.

To find out how these varieties could benefit coffee production, I spoke to BREEDCAFS researchers in France, Denmark, Vietnam, Cameroon, and Nicaragua on what advantages and challenges these varieties offer, and what role they might play in tomorrow’s coffee industry.

Lee este artículo en español Enfrentando el Cambio Climático Con Variedades Híbridas de Café

Farmers assessing the agronomic performances of an Arabica coffee hybrid plant in a demo-plot in Matagalpa, Nicaragua

Why do Hybrid Coffee Varieties Exist?

According to Benoît Bertrand, a breeder at CIRAD, the more genetically distant two coffee parents are from one another, the hardier their offspring will be. This is something scientists refer to as ‘hybrid vigor’. F1 hybrids are the first generation offspring created when two genetically distinct parent plants are crossed together. This hybrid will combine the characteristics of both parents, which can include better cup quality and disease resistance, better adaptation to climate changes, as well as higher yields – making them well positioned to withstand today’s changing environmental conditions. 

French research centre CIRAD helps countries deal with agricultural issues, and launched BREEDCAFS in 2017 to create a diverse range of sustainably produced coffee varieties. These varieties could address issues of reduced production and quality. According to CIRAD Senior Researcher and Project Co-Cordinator Hervé Etienne, when arabica coffee plants suffer, their quality does too.

Don Oscar, a coffee farmer from Sarchí, Costa Rica, points out the H1-Centroamericano hybrids cultivated on his farm

Hybrids Increase Productivity & Resilience

While coffee plants thrive when shade grown, full sun cultivation is preferred as it can produce up to 40% more yield than coffee plants grown in full shade. However, F1 hybrids can grow and maintain high yields in both agroforestry and full sun conditions. Hervé says that in his experience, F1 hybrids can produce up to 40% more yields on average than conventional varieties grown in full sun and agroforestry conditions. The BREEDCAFS project aims to take advantage of this adaptation to agroforestry conditions to select new hybrids for shade.

Hybrids can also lead to increased productivity by producing high yields from their second year of cultivation compared to traditional varieties, which usually only experience this after three years. This allows producers to increase their capacity and productivity in less time. In addition, research indicates that F1 hybrids are less vulnerable to stressful environments and to leaf rust.

Hybrids Produce High Quality Cup Profiles

Unfavourable growing conditions mean that many traditional Arabica varieties with noteworthy cup qualities fail to live up to their full potential. However, the development of hybrids could offer a way around this, which is why CIRAD researchers are creating hybrids that have genes that provide them with great resilience to stress, helping them to produce better quality cup profiles and adapt to hostile environments. 

The quality potential of F1 hybrids like these is evident in the multiple awards they’ve won in Cup of Excellence competitions in the past. The WCR agrees, noting that the cup quality of the F1 hybrids is very good or exceptional – praise usually reserved for exotic varieties such as Geisha coffee.

Arabica hybrids in nursery at La Cumplida farm in Matagalpa, Nicaragua

How F1 Hybrids Are Currently Faring 

While research is essential to understanding the functioning of F1 hybrids, they also need to be monitored in real world conditions. BREEDCAFS partners are testing hybrids in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Cameroon and Vietnam, and have partnered with national and local organisations to ensure the project remains sustainable.

Pierre Marraccini is a researcher and molecular physiologist at CIRAD. He says that it’s important to test how hybrids fare in different conditions and are impacted by different soil types, weather conditions, and human influence.

This will test how F1 hybrids adapt to different environments, which could impact how easily it’s accepted by farmers around the world. “We are comparing their responses to the new hybrid in comparison to the old cultivars through our fieldwork on farm demo plots,” says Pierre.

While these efforts demonstrate that F1 hybrids are a viable alternative to traditional varieties, less than 5% of the farms in Central America where they have been broadcast for two decades have gone on to plant them. Barriers to adoption exist, concerning accessibility as well as acceptance by farming communities and the coffee industry. 

Members of a women’s cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, propagate Arabica F1 hybrids in a nursery through the rooted mini-cuttings method

Overcoming Accessibility Barriers

While much of the work involving hybrid multiplication takes place in laboratories, setting up a lab in every coffee producing country can be challenging and costly and many producers couldn’t reach them. 

For this reason, Hervé’s team learned how to propagate hybrids without a laboratory, instead adapting their practices to local technologies and infrastructure to develop an affordable and easy to replicate mini-cutting nursery method. CIRAD collaborated with each country’s research institutes to ensure they each received full autonomy for hybrid propagation, whether by laboratory methods such as somatic embryogenesis or horticultural methods such as mini-cuttings. The aim is to increase the hybrid’s multiplication potential, decrease costs, and limit transport problems by increasing accessibility.

Vietnam and Cameroon Breedcafs partners are trained on the somatic embryogenesis propagation method in IRD’s laboratories in Montpellier, France

Many cooperatives, companies, and associations managed by women were involved, as female producers and workers often don’t get access to technological advancements. Melanie Bordeaux is Scientific Director at the Nicafrance Foundation in Nicaragua. She says that any innovation that makes F1 hybrids accessible to smallholder producers and women in coffee farming communities is significant, as “technological innovation in coffee varieties has been the exclusive benefit of medium and large producers, mainly due to production costs and because the reproduction technique was in the hands of specialised companies with high operating costs. This reality made the price of the plant more expensive, and this price, in turn, conditioned the access of small producers.”

She adds that the democratisation of hybrid reproduction techniques helps smallholder women producers and/or wives of smallholder producers lower their production costs, making it easier for them to renovate their farms and promote agroforestry. 

NOMAFSI Deputy Director General Dr Luu Ngoc Quyen (left) and Director of Vietnam’s Academy of Agricultural Sciences Dr Bùi Quang Đãng (right) on a field visit to a BREEDCAFS demoplot)

Increasing Social Acceptance

In order for hybrids to be adopted by producers, it’s important to understand their ways of living and farming. Aske Skovmand Bosselmann is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Science of the University of Copenhagen and is responsible for the BREEDCAFS Farmer Survey project. He says it’s important to supplement their scientific findings of controlled experiments with the experiences and perceptions that farmers have with new coffee hybrids.

Surveying farmers can provide key information on their farm sizes, state of diversification, farming techniques (including the availability of shade trees), access to resources (finance, input, training, etc.) and surrounding ecosystems. 

Gwendoline Naah is a Social Economist at IRAD (Institute of Agricultural Research for Development) in Cameroon, and manages the farmer surveys, which she says can help “identify the constraints that producers are facing” and “get to know the farmers.” 

The reports BREEDCAFS creates from these surveys can guide producers with their decision making. For example, it can show producers that by growing shade trees, they can earn additional income through fruit harvest or timber – while also helping preserve their coffee plants.

A producers’ cooperative from Bafoussam, Cameroon, gather as part of a dialogue platform for setting up an agroforestry cluster based on hybrid coffee varieties

Increasing Supply Chain Demand

Knowing what keeps each supply chain member from buying and selling hybrids can help researchers pinpoint where misinformation is taking place, so that they can resolve the issue at its source and encourage hybrid acceptance. 

This is important as it’s not enough to educate producers on hybrids or help them access it. Unless there’s a market for these coffees, producers won’t be able to sell them and will eventually lose interest in growing them. This is why it’s also very important to involve traders and roasters in hybrid research.

To increase the popularity of F1 hybrids on the market, every member of the coffee supply chain needs to understand what they are and what they have to offer. BREEDCAFS created dialogue platforms in each country to encourage supply chain members to share how they view F1 hybrids. They discovered that most didn’t see the need and potential for F1 hybrids. “These platforms for dialogue represent privileged moments of exchange between actors of the supply chain”, says Hervé. 

Ibrahim Njiayouom (IRAD) in front of a nursery of Starmaya hybrids at an IRAD research station in Fumbot, West Cameroon

The Future of Hybrid Varieties & The Coffee Industry

F1 hybrids have a promising future and could help revive coffee production in countries where environmental issues have made it challenging. Gwendoline believes that in Cameroon, agroforestry systems and hybrids varieties will bring back coffee cultivation, boost existing production, and increase income.

While F1 hybrids will improve conditions for producers and their communities, customers will also benefit. By giving them access to this coffee, they can keep enjoying their favourite brew with less of a negative impact on the environment – or people producing it.

Footnotes: 1The BREEDCAFS project is supported by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 – Research and Innovation Programme, H2020-SFS-2016-2, Grant Agreement Number: 727934 

Featured image caption: Producers undertake in-field phenotyping of Coffea arabica F1 hybrids on a farm in Vietnam’s Son La province

Photo credits: Mélanie Bordeaux (Nicafrance Foundation), Pierre Marraccini (CIRAD), Nerea Turreira Garcia (Faculty of Science of the University of Copenhagen), Njiayouom Ibrahim (IRAD), Hervé Etienne (CIRAD)

Please note: This article has been sponsored by CIRAD

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