PARIS, France – For some twenty years now, Cirad and its Swiss partner Ecom have been working to develop productive Arabica hybrids suitable for growing under shade and more resilient to environmental stresses. This would make them ideal for small farms practising agroforestry, with little use of inputs.
To determine their performance in the field and the quality of the coffee produced, those hybrid varieties have been tested on a broad scale, directly on smallholdings, as part of the Breedcafs project (BREEDing Coffee for AgroForestry Systems), coordinated by Cirad, funded by the EU H2020 programme and implemented with a number of partners.
The results show that these new hybrids are 10 to 20% more productive than traditional varieties. Their degree of resistance to diseases makes it possible to reduce pesticide use by 15 to 20%, and the icing on the cake is that they taste better.
“In short, they are an all-round success”, says Hervé Étienne, a Cirad researcher and co-coordinator of Breedcafs.
The coffee sector is under threat from climate change
The coffee sector is extremely vulnerable to global warming, at least as things stand today: genetically very similar Arabica coffee trees, mainly grown in full sunlight and particularly sensitive to the rising temperatures and diseases brought by climate change. Cirad’s researchers feel that growing coffee – a shade-living shrub that originated in the forests of Ethiopia – under trees is the best way of adapting production to climate change.
Over four years, the project teams characterized the adaptation mechanisms that allowed these new varieties to cope with various stress factors (high temperatures, drought, shade, high atmospheric CO2 levels, poor nitrogen nutrition, etc.).
These experiments were conducted in greenhouse climate chambers, in Denmark, France and Portugal, and also directly on more than 100 farms in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Cameroon. They served to build a highly detailed characterization of these F1 hybrids, called Starmaya, CentroAmericano, Evaluna and Mundo Maya.
Promising results for farmers
Whether in Vietnam, Cameroon, Costa Rica or Nicaragua, the results showed productivity gains of between 10 and 20% for these F1 hybrids. Moreover, their greater disease resistance means that pesticide applications can be reduced by 15 to 20%.
Researchers predict that if these hybrids are rolled out rapidly, the area planted with coffee in agroforestry systems could expand by 30 to 40% within the next decade. Benoit Bertrand, a breeder at Cirad and coordinator of the project, is optimistic that “in view of the success of these varieties in the four countries covered by the project, neighbouring countries across the three continents will massively adopt the new F1 hybrids and agroforestry systems”.
Agroforestry clusters, a new type of structure that is proving fruitful
Crops grown using agroforestry practices, good terroirs, high-yielding hybrid coffee varieties with excellent organoleptic properties, local value chains managed by interconnected stakeholders, and better profit sharing. These are the pillars of the agroforestry cluster concept built by Cirad and developed under the Breedcafs project.
This new concept has a range of benefits: it ensures supplies of high-quality, fully traceable coffee, produced in line with the principles of agroforestry, for which growers are paid a fair price, and which is carbon neutral.
For Benoît Bertrand, “the number of clusters could multiply in the coming years, as increased coffee prices mean that it is vital that industrialists build trust-based relationships with producers, to guarantee product quality and environmentally sustainable growing practices”.
Benchmark methodologies and tools
A meta database lists all the agronomic characteristics and biochemical, physiological and molecular data for the varieties grown in the various trials, under field or controlled conditions and with various types of climates and stresses.
The database and the associated powerful statistical tools are unprecedented in the coffee sector, and could prove useful even beyond the project, within other scientific communities working on coffee or other tropical tree crops.
Data of vital importance for breeders
Breedcafs revealed the so far unexploited gene pool made up of wild varieties that could be used to breed Arabica, by proving the agronomic merits and cup quality of F1 hybrids bred from Ethiopian parents.
From a taste point of view, the Breedcafs project also established that the biggest differences in cup quality are seen when coffee is grown at high altitude. This information is of major importance for breeding operations focusing on exceptional, novel sensorial profiles.
The project also served to develop tools and methods for identifying genes suited to agroforestry systems. These instruments will facilitate breeding strategies and can easily be transposed to other fruit tree species.
Breedcafs also improved our understanding of the agronomic characteristics of varieties suitable for growing under shade: productivity, and tolerance of and resilience to more difficult climate and production environments
Breedcafs partners are: Cirad (coordinator), Illy Caffe Italy, Eurofins, Arvid Nordquist, University of Copenhagen, NUI Galway, IRD, University of Lisbon, University of Montpellier, Nova ID FCT, Max Planck, Forschungszentrum Julich GMBH Germany, Nomafsi, AGI, Irad, University of Arizona, WRC, Nicafrance Foundation and SNV.