Could new varieties help to safeguard the future of Vietnamese coffee production?
Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee. According to the International Coffee Organisation, the country produced around 33.4 million 60kg bags in 2017.
Since then, however, annual harvest volumes have been steadily declining. Between 2019 and 2020, production volumes fell by 4.9% to 29 million 60kg bags.
Some 95% of Vietnamese coffee is robusta, while arabica makes up the remaining 5%. Unfortunately, robusta has a negative reputation because of historical associations with poor quality.
As part of improving farmers’ income, bolstering arabica production in Vietnam has been a key focus for many stakeholders in the country’s coffee industry. In many cases, this has meant trialling new hybrid varieties as well as implementing agroforestry practices.
To learn more about these new farm management techniques, I spoke with two people involved in the BREEDCAFS project taking place in northwest Vietnam. Read on for more of their insight.
You may also like our article on introducing climate-resilient coffee hybrids in Vietnam.
Challenges in Vietnamese coffee production
One of the biggest challenges that Vietnamese coffee producers face is the country’s widespread reputation for producing lower-quality robusta at scale. However, beyond this, even where arabica coffee is concerned, the country’s farmers face a number of challenges.
Laurent Bossolasco is the Asia-Pacific Regional Manager for ECOM Sustainable Management Services (SMS).
“Vietnamese coffee producers – whether they are growing arabica or robusta – face challenges that are also common elsewhere across the Bean Belt, such as the rising costs of hiring labour and fertilisers, as well as price volatility,” he says.
“Although farmgate prices are currently higher, this hasn’t always been the case,” he adds. “Coffee prices were low two to three years ago; in some countries they were even below the costs of production.”
Generally speaking, coffee farmers have to reinvest a significant proportion of their income into farm costs on a yearly basis. These include regular seasonal maintenance, replanting old trees, or buying agricultural inputs to maintain or improve yield and quality.
However, alongside these costs, producers also need to earn enough money to support themselves and their families.
“While Vietnamese arabica farmers can largely cover their production costs, our research has indicated that prices still aren’t high enough for them to earn a living income,” Laurent explains.
“Around 17% of the arabica producers we surveyed earned more than a living income between 2019 and 2020,” he tells me. “Between 2021 and 2022, however, this number increased to 85%.”
As well as issues of income stability, Vietnamese farmers also face a number of challenges as far as coffee quality is concerned.
“Most Vietnamese arabica is Catimor, which is largely grown in full sun conditions,” Laurent explains. “This variety is more resistant to diseases like coffee leaf rust, but historically has not been of high quality.
“Arabica farms are not irrigated in Vietnam, so more unpredictable rainfall could affect their growth and yield,” he adds. “Rising temperatures are likely to cause higher levels of pest outbreaks, which could force farmers at lower altitudes to turn to other cash crops.”
Furthermore, climate change is becoming more of an issue for many countries along the Bean Belt, including Vietnam. The country’s increasing annual temperatures could see some of its coffee-growing regions decline in size and suitability by as much as 50% within the next 30 years.
“The age of coffee trees is also a challenge that farmers need to address, so breeding and adopting new hybrid varieties that are fit for agroforestry practices can help to tackle these issues in Vietnamese coffee production,” Laurent says.
F1 hybrid varieties
One possible solution to improve the resiliency of Vietnamese arabica plants is the development of new F1 hybrid varieties – but what exactly are these?
Clément Rigal is a coffee agronomist at French agricultural research organisation CIRAD.
“First generation (or F1) coffee hybrids are made by crossing two coffee plants which both have desirable characteristics, such as producing higher yields and high-quality coffee, or having a higher tolerance to drought,” he says.
“This type of selection process has been carried out by farmers for centuries, however, breeders are now more systematic in their approach,” he adds. “They have access to parent trees from different origins and can more extensively measure the performance of the F1 hybrids.”
Laurent adds: “Most arabica varieties grown currently in Vietnam are not likely to be able to tolerate higher instances of diseases and pests, as well as rising temperatures and other environmental threats related to climate change.
“ECOM and CIRAD have developed breeding programmes to improve the genetic diversity of robusta and arabica,” he adds. “The arabica hybrids were developed by crossing traditional varieties with wild varieties from Sudan and Ethiopia.”
Developing hybrid varieties successfully requires extensive knowledge and technical skills, as Clément explains.
“The only F1 hybrid that can be propagated by seeds is Starmaya, but the seeds must be propagated in dedicated seed gardens,” he says. “This F1 hybrid variety was developed by CIRAD and ECOM.”
Starmaya is a hybrid between an arabica plant and the rust-resistant Marsellesa variety, which CIRAD and ECOM first field-tested in Nicaragua in the mid-to-late 2000s. It can grow at medium altitudes while still producing high yields and desirable flavour profiles.
“Hybrid varieties yield between 20% and 40% more than their parent varieties, as well as the control varieties used in our study,” Laurent tells me. “In our sensory evaluations, the hybrid varieties scored the same or higher than more traditional ones.”
Planting F1 hybrids on coffee farms
In order for farmers to reap the benefits of new hybrid varieties, a key focus needs to be accessibility. Making it easier to acquire and plant seedlings, for instance, is one area to begin with.
Laurent, for instance, tells me how CIRAD and ECOM have been supporting producers in Vietnam to plant more F1 hybrids.
“The BREEDCAFS project was first implemented in northern Vietnam, with a long-term objective of scaling production if successful,” he says. “ECOM SMS also set up a nursery and propagation site to carry out other trials in the Central Highlands to test different climatic conditions.”
“The three commercial hybrid varieties which performed well in trials in Central America were selected for the BREEDCAFS project in Vietnam,” Laurent says. “These include Centroamericano (H1), Starmaya, and Mundo Maya (EC16).”
As part of planting these new hybrid varieties, CIRAD and ECOM have been encouraging producers to adopt more agroforestry techniques on coffee farms. Essentially, these practices include growing a number of crops (including coffee) among trees and woodland.
Clément explains that this is carried out for a number of reasons.
“In many countries along the Bean Belt, nitrogen-fixing shade trees are mostly planted on coffee farms,” he says. “Shade trees can improve soil conditions and help coffee plants adapt better to microclimates, which can result in higher-quality coffee.
“In Vietnam specifically, most agroforestry systems on coffee farms also include fruit trees,” he adds. “Some fruit trees compete with coffee plants and require high levels of inputs and maintenance, but they provide farmers with higher economic return.”
Because of the increased competition with fruit trees, Clément emphasises why planting more F1 hybrids is so important for Vietnamese arabica farmers.
“The F1 hybrids developed in the BREEDCAFS project are better adapted to shadier environments than traditional varieties, such as Catimor, and can grow well when intercropped with fruit trees,” he explains. “Moreover, fruit trees can help to mitigate extreme variations in temperature as a result of climate change, therefore supporting the future of coffee production.”
By supporting arabica plants to thrive in a higher range of temperatures, Laurent tells me that coffee quality can be improved in the long term.
“Intercropping trees on coffee farms helps producers to develop shade conditions,” he says. “This can ensure the cherries mature more slowly to develop more flavours and aromas.
“As well as this, intercropping can provide more natural pest and disease control methods, alongside increased protection from extreme weather conditions, such as frost, heat waves, or hail,” he adds.
How can hybrid varieties benefit Vietnamese farmers?
There are clearly a number of ways in which hybrid varieties with better climate resilience can help farmers in Vietnam benefit, not least by making arabica production more viable.
It’s important to note, however, that scaling the production of these hybrid varieties requires extensive support from industry stakeholders.
“Monitoring the impact of these agroforestry practices is necessary,” Laurent says. “Academic research and public-private partnerships are crucial to assess the impact of these practices on yields and quality.
“ECOM SMS supports producers to optimise their inputs – such as fertilisers, water, and labour – and therefore reduce production costs and generate higher profits,” he adds. “What’s more, this helped to lower the farm’s carbon footprint and lessen the impact on the environment.”
And with climate change becoming an increasing concern for the global coffee industry, developing more climate-resilient hybrid varieties has never been more important.
“Hybrid coffee varieties were selected as part of the BREEDCAFS project because they have desirable characteristics,” Clément says. “Previously, the selection was mostly focused on selecting varieties with higher yields, as well as a higher resistance to pests and diseases.
“In more recent years, however, the selection process includes a broader scope to also include coffee quality and climate resilience,” he adds. “The goal is to propagate hybrid varieties that are more compatible with farming practices, such as agroforestry, to create more sustainable farming systems.”
Alongside this, a growing focus on improving arabica quality in Vietnam will benefit farmers and the country’s coffee sector more widely.
“Higher-quality varieties will allow Vietnamese producers to market their coffee better, potentially increasing prices, too,” Laurent explains. “Higher yields, combined with intercropping fruit trees, may generate higher revenue and potentially create new additional benefits, such as carbon sequestration schemes.”
Clément adds that on coffee farms in Latin America, these F1 hybrid varieties have been found to score higher than more traditional arabica varieties.
“On coffee farms in Latin America – where CIRAD first selected and tested hybrid varieties – F1 hybrids had higher cupping scores than Catimor,” he says. “In Vietnam, we are still measuring the quality results.
“Higher quality should, in theory, increase farmgate prices, which should improve farmers’ profitability and provide them with additional income to face potential future challenges,” he concludes.
With research already showing that hybrids can help drive up quality and be more climate-resilient, they could clearly have a number of benefits for Vietnamese coffee farmers interested in arabica production.
Going forward, the hope is that the uptake of these varieties could support producers in other countries to adopt agroforestry systems and plant shade trees. Ideally, this would allow them to maintain current farm altitudes, as opposed to “climbing higher” to reach more suitable growing conditions – especially as climate change becomes more of an issue in the coffee industry.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on tasting “forgotten” wild coffee species: an experiment.
Photo credits: Laurent Bossolasco, Clément Rigal
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