Coffee & Genetic Diversity


'Science' is often conflated with 'truth' and this assumption can have far-reaching impacts, both positive and negative, on an industry that is as reliant on evidence-based conclusions as specialty coffee is.

Bruno Latour, a philosopher and sociologist of science, wrote a clear and in-depth analysis back in 1987 about the ways in which scientific communities are inseparable from the traditions, culture and societal perspectives that surround them. This is something that is not often acknowledged within the course of scientific debates and it came to mind when I recently came across diverging sets of research on genetic variability: a topic that is of vital importance to the future of coffee.

Since 2013, World Coffee Research has been undertaking studies on genetic variability and one of their preliminary findings was that there is almost no genetic diversity amongst coffee plants, whether wild or cultivated. Thisconclusion was based on 'an incredibly diverse range' of around 1000 plant samples. It is important to note that these samples were taken from the CATIE coffee germplasm collection, and not wild Ethiopian coffee forests.

If these findings hold true, the consequences could be dire for coffee which is increasingly under threat from climate change and its associated diseases, pests, rain and temperature fluctuations, etc. Coffee requires, as other viable crops do, a broad range of genes from which to select and plant future coffee.

But the findings from World Coffee Research are not corroborated by other researchers who are investigating this same topic. For example, Ethiopian and German researchers from Addis Ababa University and Freie Universität Berlin jointly published an article in 2014 that used inter-simple sequence repeats (ISSR) fingerprinting analysis and found high genetic variability in the forest populations it studied.

One of the realities about conducting any kind of research is that it is almost always conducted within a specific sphere of influence, whether a university, a small international community of acquainted researchers, or a company that has its own R&D department. I'm glad that World Coffee Research exists - it is made up of many great coffee organizations and companies that are specifically working for the specialty coffee community. This industry needs to have bodies such as WCR in order for all of us to thrive and innovate.

What my very short and select literature review highlights is the need for more and closer cooperation between specialty coffee and the wider scientific community. Why shouldn't specialty coffee benefit from the fact that a lot of resources and great minds outside 'our sphere' are addressing some of our biggest questions and challenges?

- Melanie