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Andrea Illy on the Asic event: ‘Sustainability and coffee quality are two sides of the same coin’

Andrea Illy Asic
Andrea Illy, Honorary President of the Asic and chairman of the Board of illycaffè

MILAN – The 28th Asic Conference on Coffee Science took place 28 June – 1 July 2021 in Montpellier SupAgro (France). The conference represents a unique opportunity to gather specialists from all over the world working on different aspects of coffee science and technology, in topics such as agronomy, chemistry, genetics, coffee and health, etc. Because of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak that is still affecting most countries, the event was held in a virtual format.

We asked Andrea Illy – Honorary President of the Asic and chairman of the Board of illycaffè – to tell us more about the Conference and its main findings.

The theme of the opening session was dubbed “The future of the coffee industry. A strategy for the Green New Deal”. What are the pillars of this New Deal?

To sustain the coffee producer communities and to delight consumers with an excellent cup of coffee we must protect and strengthen the virtuous circle created through pleasure, health and sustainability. A virtuous circle that is currently threatened by climate change. The strategy for the Green New Deal is about facing climate change mainly through adaptation and mitigation and using agro-ecological practices to also improve people health.

The use of sustainable agronomical practices is the most important activity for adapting coffee agriculture to climate change and mitigate its environmental impact by improving and maintaining natural landscape and agro-systems, minimizing the use of energy, and reducing pollution.

They offer an alternative to conventional agriculture, which is responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Enriching soil with organic carbon allows to sequestrate carbon and increase soil quality and resilience, while also indirectly enhancing biodiversity, fertility, water retention and reducing dependence on agrochemicals, improving the resilience of the ecosystem. A healthy soil produces healthy foods. This is the model of the Virtuous Agriculture that I studied for more than a year.

Coffee is known to prevent non-communicable diseases thanks to its antioxidant proprieties. If we produce it in a healthy soil with these virtuous practices it should be even more beneficial for our health. Fifty years ago the only reason why to drink coffee was caffeine, while today it’s also the sensorial and social experience. In a world where consumers desperately seek health and sustainability, this dual benefit of coffee, for the environment and for people’s wellbeing, represent a very powerful extra motivation to drink coffee.

Did the Conference help connect the players in the supply chain in order to elaborate a holistic approach in addressing the problems of the coffee sector?

The first task of Asic is that that to give access to knowledge and connect the world of research with that of production. It is also thanks to this that coffee farming is one of the most sustainable.

ASIC also contribute to incentive the research on new coffee varietals resilient to climate change. Using the cutting-edge knowledge of coffee genetics and quality, they deliver new technologies and solutions to prevent pests and diseases.

What were, in your opinion, the most interesting findings in coffee chemistry and sensory sciences?

As regards Coffee Chemistry, in addition to its important role for the purposes of product authenticity, traceability and food safety, the in-depth analyzes presented on some chemical compounds that perform decisive functions as aroma precursors or as bioactive constituents have been of considerable interest.

Chlorogenic acids, for example, antioxidant polyphenols characterized by positive biological activities, were the subject of a plenary lecture in which the emerged complexity on the multiplicity of their chemical structures and their reactivity is so far still almost unknown and unexplored.

Of particular interest are the studies that use metabolomics to correlate the chemical composition or the presence of precursors to the sensory attributes of products such as traditional extracts or the more recent cold brews. Among the sensory attributes, acidity and bitterness have been the subject of specific studies.

Special attention was paid to the sensory characterization of new Coffea arabica hybrids created to offer resilience to climate change.

It has also emerged the need to undertake in-depth studies in the field of human physiology, on the interactions between chemical stimuli and specific receptors, a terrain whose obvious importance has not yet found an adequate research commitment.

What did you like most of the conference?

The virtual format that gave access to a greater number of participants was a success and I really appreciated it. The theme chosen for this 28th edition of Asic was also important: “Connecting sustainability and coffee quality”, two sides of the same coin that are correctly analyzed together, emphasizing that there can be no quality without sustainability and vice-versa.