Seed Money: How ECOM and CIRAD are creating coffee plant hybrids that will reap big returns for farmers
Sophisticated micro-propagation techniques are producing more resilient hybrids
The ECOM Group’s commitment to sustainability is reflected in its Sustainable Management Services (SMS) division, created 15 years ago. SMS is responsible for the implementation of more than 300 sustainable projects worldwide. It focuses on tackling key challenges that farmers are currently facing, such as climate change, crop diseases and cup quality. SMS enables ECOM to partner with the bests, among which, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD). This prosperous alliance successfully led ECOM to distribute more than 20 million coffee and cacao plants every year in about 11 countries. Including the finest hybrid coffee plant, F1 — or first-generation — hybrids produced by seed, using genetic male sterility, a natural coffee plant mutant unable to produce pollen, allowing for cross-pollination from other pollen varieties.
Since 2003, the ECOM-CIRAD consortium has produced an average of 1 million F1 Arabica hybrid coffee plants per year in Nicaragua by in vitro micro-propagation techniques. Like “somatic embryogenesis”, an artificial process in which a plant is regenerated in vitro from a single somatic cell. Diverging from the normally occurring fertilization process in plants.
F1 Arabica hybrids possess genetic and agronomic advantages, such as higher and more stable yields, more vigor, disease resistance, better cup quality and adaptability to agroforestry systems. Although this technique of micro-propagation in vitro worked technically, it is not economically viable due to high manpower, laboratory and nursery infrastructure costs.
Compared with clonal propagation in vitro lab (the somatic embryogenesis technique), this new type of propagation by seed should allow rapid and large-scale dissemination of Arabica F1 hybrids. Indeed, these hybrids produced by seeds offer the advantages of being produced in quantity, easily handled, stored and transported, and are much more affordable for farmers.
In 2017, ECOM decided to test this variety, called “Starmaya”, on a large scale in their farms, after the variety performed well in field trials in Nicaragua.
Frédéric Georget, CIRAD researcher and ECOM Group Technical Advisor for planting material, attributes a significant part of the partnership’s success to ECOM’s extensive network: “Having all of the control of the chain through ECOM, which [provides] scientific, technical, financial and commercial [services]…allows us to create innovative micro propagation systems and to consider sustainable business models where everyone wins.”
Historically, creating new coffee varieties has been a drawn-out process as a perennial crop, coffee trees have a maturity rate of three to four years. By conventional breeding techniques, it takes two decades to bring a new variety of coffee to market. The 21st century has brought its fair share of challenges, including unpredictable weather, new diseases and virulent pests. With the rapidly shrinking land available for growing coffee, it has become critical to examine how to create plants with a higher yield to meet market demand.
The introduction of coffee plant hybrids to producers in Central America got off to a rocky start in the 2000s. The producers perceived the hybrids as unnatural and losses in the field due to a shortfall in monitoring progress did nothing to allay these doubts.
Philippe Courtel, Global Plant Nursery Manager in Nicaragua, credits SMS with tackling these issues directly. “There was a lack of knowledge on both sides…In 2011, SMS took this on and there was an improvement in tracking. SMS Nicaragua and Costa Rica…exchanged a lot of information and knowledge and that was really the engine to enhancing the [producers’] view of hybrids.”
The higher yields of F1 hybrids can save farmers money in the long run, but they are currently only produced in a few technically advanced nurseries. To overcome this hurdle, ECOM and SMS need to raise the profile of hybrids in the international community.
“The key to producing plant hybrids at scale is to develop a sales force, export logistics and a presence in other countries,” said Philippe.
At the heart of this issue is the 123 million people worldwide — and the almost 2 million people in Central America — who depend on coffee for their livelihoods. The continued success of partnerships, like the one between ECOM and CIRAD — and their willingness to share their hard-earned research with the world — is the key to building a sustainable future for coffee farming.