Coffee is one of the world’s biggest cash crops, with coffee production supporting an estimated 125 million people along the Bean Belt. According to the International Coffee Organisation, some 167.2 million 60kg bags of green coffee will be produced in 2022/23.
Today, there are around 120 identified species of coffee, which means there is an almost endless number of different varieties – especially when we consider wild varieties which grow naturally. Hybrid varieties, which are cultivated by researchers and agronomists to improve both yield and quality, are also becoming more common.
And while these hybrid varieties aren’t technically genetically modified, their existence still leads to a pertinent question: can coffee be genetically modified? And if so, what are the advantages?
To find out, I spoke with the CEO of RD2 Vision, Dr. Christophe Montagnon, and Divisional Head of the Coffee Board at India’s Central Coffee Research Institute, Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra. Read on for more of their insight on GMO coffee.
You may also like our article on introducing climate-resilient coffee hybrids in Vietnam.
How does genetic modification work?
For centuries, humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals in order to produce higher yields and create more resilient and stronger livestock. This technique involves choosing plant or animal parents which have particular desirable characteristics. For coffee, this can include better resistance to pests and diseases, as well as more climate-resilient traits.
When breeding together two parents with desirable traits, it’s more likely that the offspring will also inherit them. In turn, this changes the plant’s or animal’s characteristics over time to be better suited for cultivation and breeding for human consumption.
Genetic modification, however, involves altering a plant’s or animal’s genetic material (or DNA) in a way which cannot occur naturally. Essentially, this means genetic modification can only take place in a controlled environment, such as a laboratory.
According to the World Health Organisation, the only genetically modified organisms (GMO) which are currently available have all been developed from plants. The most commonly grown GMOs are corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola plants, based on information from the US Food and Drug Administration.
There are a number of benefits to growing GMOs – for example, they can have higher yields and quality, as well as improving resistance to pests and diseases. Farmers can also grow GMO crops to reduce the use of their agricultural inputs, particularly fertilisers.
However, there are also several risks associated with cultivating and producing GMO crops. Arguably, the biggest concern is reducing the genetic diversity of a plant or animal, which can lead to a number of problems such as a higher susceptibility to a certain type of pest or disease.
“The exact risks associated with producing and consuming GMO crops are not yet fully known,” Manoj tells me – ultimately, more scientific research is needed to fully understand both the benefits and risks of GMOs.
Is it possible to genetically modify coffee?
Although a number of crops are genetically modified, is it possible to do the same with coffee?
According to the National Coffee Association, there is currently no commercially-available genetically modified coffee. However, the NCA also emphasises that certain ingredients which can be added to coffee products (such as flavourings and additives) could be classified as GMO – especially if they are corn or soy-based.
While there isn’t any genetically modified coffee available on the market, Christophe tells me that in 2005, he managed a project organised by the French agricultural research institute CIRAD. The project was developed to cultivate genetically modified robusta in French Guiana – an overseas department of France on the northeast coast of South America.
“In our research, we studied robusta’s resistance to the coffee leaf miner,” Christophe says. By the end of the trial, he says 70% of the genetically modified coffee plants were completely resistant to the coffee leaf miner – a moth that lays eggs on the leaves of coffee plants, which ultimately kills them.
While the trial produced promising results, the genetically modified robusta plants were never disseminated to local coffee farmers.
“Our findings were not for commercial use – just to increase our scientific knowledge of coffee production,” Christophe explains.
What about hybrid varieties?
It’s important for us to distinguish between GMOs and hybrid coffee varieties.
Although hybrid varieties are created through human intervention, they are developed using natural techniques, as Christophe explains.
“Hand pollination can be carried out by humans, but it could also occur naturally through mating or natural recombination,” he says.
Hybrid varieties are often created to combine different desirable characteristics in the same plant, such as high yield and cup quality.
One example is F1 (or first generation) hybrid varieties, which first became available to coffee farmers in 2010.
According to World Coffee Research, the first-ever F1 hybrid to be propagated by seed was Starmaya – a high-yielding arabica variety which is resistant to coffee leaf rust.
Through seed propagation, as opposed to using biotechnologies such as tissue cloning, agronomists were able to cultivate Starmaya much more efficiently than other F1 hybrid varieties. However, the process of developing any type of hybrid variety is lengthy and can be costly, too.
Alongside hybrid varieties, Manoj tells me there is also plenty of research underway on genome sequencing for both arabica and robusta plants.
“[Through genome sequencing], we are able to understand the agronomic traits of arabica and robusta, such as quality and tolerance to pests, diseases, and climatic conditions,” he says. “This research will also essentially expedite other studies in the coming years [as the data is more readily available].
“It also means that more desirable characteristics of certain varieties could be more easily introduced to other varieties through conventional breeding methods or molecular gene editing technology,” he adds.
Moreover, further genetic research on some wild coffee species, such as Coffea racemosa and Coffee zanguebariae, could provide agronomists with more information on how coffee plants can naturally become more climate resilient over time.
However, research from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK has found that while these species have some desirable characteristics – including high cup quality when grown using specific farming techniques – yields are generally very low. Ultimately, more research is needed at this point in time.
The challenges associated with GMOs
There’s no denying that there are benefits to cultivating and growing genetically modified crops, particularly for smallholder producers who may be struggling with the effects of climate change. If more research was to be conducted into growing GMO coffee, they could pose a number of benefits.
However, there are also a number of challenges related to developing GMO coffee, as Manoj explains.
“The technology used to develop genetically modified coffee is extremely difficult to navigate,” he says. “The process also consists of several critical steps which would all need to be optimised and improved so that we could understand more about the expression and integration of a coffee’s genes.
“Moreover, there are very few laboratories in the world which have the experience and expertise to develop genetically modified coffee,” he adds. “Other barriers include strict governmental regulation of producing GMOs, as well as negative public perception about genetically modified products.”
Although some organisations and scientific institutions claim that GMO foods are safe to consume, other research indicates that they can be harmful to the environment and human health.
For instance, in the 2013 Genetically modified foods: safety, risks and public concerns—a review research paper, it was found that consuming GMO foods could increase the chances of an allergic reaction. This is because GMOs contain foreign genes, so the risk that they are contaminated with allergens from other foods can increase.
These concerns have meant that some coffee brands have even labelled their products as certified organic or indicated that they are a part of the Non-GMO project. This is a certification organisation which verifies that a product’s ingredients have not been genetically modified.
It’s evident that we’re a long way off from growing genetically modified coffee, particularly for commercial purposes. However, it is something we could see more of in the future – especially as climate change becomes more of a threat to sustainable coffee production.
But whether consumers would be open to drinking GMO coffee is another question. Ultimately, considering it is still more a concept than something in practice, the only thing we know for now is that more research is necessary.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how rootstock grafting can make coffee plants more resilient.
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