New DNA research may hold the key to the world coffee crisis


New research has succeeded in sequencing the DNA of the Robusta coffee plant and decoding its evolutionary past. At a time when climate change has decimated the local coffee crop in both Central America and East Africa, the research hopes to play a pivotal role in breeding new coffee plants that are more resistant to pests and disease.

Molecular biologist Dominique Crouzillat, the French Institute of Research for Development and the French Sequencing Centre all contributed to furthering our understanding of the Coffee Robusta plant and its genome. Creating new, hybrid coffee plants through cross breeding species will ultimately allow farmers to increase their coffee yields and avoid dramatic price fluctuations. Providing a more stable economy for the small hold farmers and their local community.

At first glance the coffee industry appears to be healthy and buoyant as global demand continues to rise. The 2012/2013 growing season saw a record year with a total of 145.1 million bags of coffee produced. This increase is in part due to developing countries expanding their coffee production, the improvement of production techniques and more efficient farm management. Vietnam, the worlds 2nd largest producer of coffee and has increased its market share from 0.1% to 20% over the last 30 years, steadily contributing to the increase in global coffee production.

Almost all coffee producing countries have seen a steady increase in coffee production over the last 50 years, everyone with the exception of East Africa. It is estimated that pests have destroyed 80% of the coffee crop in Kenya and Uganda, with a staggering 90% affected in Tanzania.

The pest responsible for such wide spread damage is the coffee berry borer beetle. The pest burrows into the coffee plant laying up to 50 eggs at a time where the developing lava damaged the coffee beans, promote premature falling, and ultimately affect the commercial value of the coffee beans.

With so may people relying on coffee to feed their families and as a source of income, finding ways to improve the plants resistant to these pests has become an essential priority.

Anther factor influencing coffee production has been the proliferation of disease. One of the most common, Coffee Rust, reached epidemic proportions in Central America during 2013 where a state of emergency was issued in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras. Coffee Rust attacks the leaves of the coffee plant leaving the all-important fruit with little time to ripen. Damage is estimated at £500m and the loss of 374,000 jobs

The outbreak has largely been influenced by climate change. Historically temperatures in the higher altitudes of Central America where many of the coffee plantations are located weren’t conducive for the fungus. The rise in temperature over recent years has allowed the fungus to spread into the mountains and throughout the coffee plantations.

The answer to the disease was to try and cross breed the two most popular coffee plants, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica coffee is used in higher quality coffees and has a less bitter taste than the Robusta bean, however it is much more susceptible to disease and changes to its growing environment. Robusta, used in instant coffee is considered by most to be of lower quality, it is however much hardier than the Arabica plant.


Disease                                              Arabica                       Robusta

Hemileia vastatrix                               Susceptible                    Resistant

Koleroga                                                Susceptible                    Tolerant

Nematodes                                            Susceptible                    Resistant

Tracheomycosis                                   Resistant                        Susceptible

Coffee berry disease                            Susceptible                    Resistant


The primary disadvantage with this approach was the length of time it took to determine if the new hybrid coffee plants had positive impacts on coffee yields and resistance. With the coffee plant taking 3-4 years to flower, and then a further 3-4 years before average coffee yields could be measured, 10 years were needed before any meaningful data could be analysed.

The DNA research can effectively speed up this process by understanding which genes could be important for high yields vs. other environmental factors like temperature, growth, precipitation and nutrients.

About the author: Nick Huxsted is an independent writer who’s interested in climate change, biology and the effects coffee has on the human body. He currently writes for Joe Black Coffee in Liverpool and is a regular contributor to Hip & Healthy.

Nick Huxsted
Nick Huxsted works for Will Williams Meditation in London. Their aim is to help people live the happiest, healthiest lives they can through the ancient practice of Vedic meditation.