Saving coffee through science

 By Michelle Leslie

It’s part of the morning routine for hundreds of millions of people every day. In fact, next to oil, coffee is the number one traded commodity, employing millions of people in 70 countries around the world, many of whom depend on harvests to feed their families. Due to climate change the future of the world’s favorite drink could be in jeopardy…

Climate change is shifting weather and precipitation patterns in coffee producing countries, threatening the future of morning java. Climate disruptions have direct impacts on crop health that is largely determined by rainfall and sunshine. Additionally, hotter temperatures and disruptive weather patterns make plants more vulnerable to pests and diseases, reducing both yields and quality of coffee beans. As highlighted in a report on Climate Change Adaptation in Coffee Production, “The overall result of the negative impacts of extreme weather conditions is a reduction in coffee quantity and quality, and increasing production costs due to the need for additional inputs or labor.”

Climate disruptions are partially to blame for a devastating disease known as coffee leaf rust that has been attacking the very livelihood of the world’s coffee production. “Coffee leaf rust is a fungal disease. We had a similar disease that started a few years ago in Africa, stem rust in the wheat which broke down the crops. This posed a threat of a 100 percent crop loss,” according to Stephan Nielen, Plant Breeder and Geneticist with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Due to climate change the future of the coffee could be in jeopardy...

Coffee leaf rust, also known as Hemileia Vasatrix, is a fungus that attacks coffee crops by depositing rust like spots on the leaves of plants, choking off photosynthesis and ultimately killing them. Hemileia Vasatrix was first documented in the late 1800s, but climate change has made plants more susceptible to this disease. Guatemala declared an agricultural emergency a few years ago after the fungus chewed through approximately 70 percent of the country’s coffee crops. Guatemala is just one of many countries fighting this fungus as highlighted recently by the United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agriculture Service. The report pointed out that in Central America and Mexico, production of Arabica beans is forecast to remain low this year following a previous outbreak of coffee leaf rust.

This killer of crops is a serious problem for coffee producers and consumers. A global decline in coffee production has significant impacts on farmers. Most of the world’s coffee farmers live in poor conditions and receive between $0.30 and $0.50 for each pound of coffee sold. This past fall the Consultative Forum on Coffee Sector Finance indicated that some farmers were operating at a loss as profits continued to drop. For coffee lovers, a reduced harvest means a higher price tag for that morning cup of joe. Enter the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a team of nuclear scientists who are working to save global coffee production from diseases like coffee leaf rust.

Guatemala declared an agricultural emergency a few years ago

“Through bio mutation breeding we are trying to develop new coffee varieties that are resistant to this disease and at the same time maintain the cup quality,” stated Nielen. There are basically two kinds of coffee beans that are grown globally — Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans, the more desirable quality coffee beans, are primarily cultivated in the higher regions of Central America and are more susceptible to coffee leaf rust. Adding to the problem is that Arabica plants lack genetic variety, making crossbreeding almost impossible. “If you crossed it (Arabica) with another variety there is almost no variability without mutation breeding,” said Nielen.

Bio mutation breeding is a technique that alters the genetic make up or DNA of plants by introducing gamma rays, very fast energetic photons, to the genetic material of coffee seeds. This energy accelerates traditional crossbreeding methods, creating plants that have a greater capability of withstanding impacts of diseases and erratic climate conditions. This method is able to create stronger plants without sacrificing bean quality. Another added benefit is time. Traditional crossbreeding can take decades to successfully produce resistant plants while nuclear science can accomplish it in just a few years.

Using nuclear science to improve crop species is nothing new. According to the IAEA, since the 1930s scientists have successfully developed more than 200 crop species. It’s a step forward in sustainable agriculture through establishing a more resilient pool of crops. This scientific method to enhance coffee production could save decades of potential harvest losses. It also provides the added benefit of avoiding the use of costly chemicals which have both negative economic and health impacts. “Developing disease resistant crops is a big advantage because you don’t have to spray. Spraying isn’t good for the health of the produce, the people who spray the chemicals and it’s a high financial impact,” added Nielen.

The work being done at the IAEA to save coffee crops is supported in part by the OPEC Fund for International Development. For coffee producers advances in nuclear science could equal hope for bountiful harvests, job security and a better living for millions of people.

SEE MORE: Using microwaves to extract oil by Peter Ward

about the author
Michelle Leslie
Alberta, Toronto and now Ottawa. Meteorologist, Journalist & Munk School Of Global Affairs Fellow.