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One of a Kind Coffee Germplasm

By Jennifer Magid

Costa Rica is home to a graduate school and training program, research headquarters and an outreach center focused on coffee.

Costa Rica is a lush, green country known for its diverse wildlife and ecological tourism. But what many don’t know about Costa Rica is that it is also the home to the world’s largest, most influential -- and most truly unique -- coffee germplasm.

CATIE, or Centro Agronomico Tropical de Invetigacion y Enseñanza (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center), has dedicated itself to sustainable rural development and poverty reduction in tropical America. The center, located in Turrialba, Costa Rica, is home to a graduate school and training program, research headquarters and an outreach center. But what makes CATIE most exciting is that it is one of a kind in its research. While the entire coffee world may not yet know about CATIE, they were given the opportunity to be introduced to the center during the 2004 Sintercafe show in Costa Rica. A sponsored tour of CATIE gave attendees of the coffee industry an opportunity to find out about its unique objectives.

CATIE, though it was not originally called that, was started in 1942 at the initiative of Henry Wallace, U.S. Secretary for Agriculture. The Interamerican Institute for Agricultural Sciences, or IICA, as it was called, was founded with its center in Turrialba, Costa Rica. In 1973, the research and higher education center at Turrialba was split from IICA, which moved to another site, and the Center for Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education, CATIE, was formed. Currently, CATIE has 13 country members, from Mexico to Bolivia. The organization’s mission has been from day one to contribute to rural poverty reduction by promoting competitive and sustainable agriculture and natural resource management.

“CATIE’s primary activities are research in sustainable land use practices and higher education, with Masters and Doctoral programs in ecological agriculture, agroforestry, forestry and environmental economics. The final area, which we call outreach, is transferring our knowledge to member countries. This is comprised of providing training and advice to government and private development projects, and sometimes CATIE actually implements pilot development projects,” says Jeremy Haggar, coordinator of the Coffee Theme group. Haggar is an integral part of CATIE’s coffee projects. He came to Costa Rica and CATIE by way of England, where he studied ecology at University of Cambridge and first went to CATIE in 1988, for his Ph.D. thesis. His time there has now led into a long-term career path: for the past five years, he has worked for CATIE based in Nicaragua, coordinating regional programs, conducting research and training in ecological coffee production.

Haggar explains that the “Coffee Theme” group is multi-disciplinary, and is composed of geneticists, ecologists, economists and geographers, amongst others in scientific disciplines. The group works as a whole to develop solutions to the problems facing regional coffee producers.

As is already well known in the coffee world, Costa Rica produces a major output of the world’s coffee, though currently, tourism is the country’s highest source of income. Nonetheless, the climate offers ideal conditions and elevations. Costa Rica has over one million hectares of potential coffee land, of only about 13% of which is currently planted in coffee. Some of the most acclaimed coffee comes from the Tarrazu area, which has extremely high altitudes that go up to 2,000 meters.

“All but two of CATIE’s member countries are coffee producers. Coffee is the single most important crop for the livelihoods of rural families in member countries,” says Haggar. “In Central America, about 30% of rural families or 1.6 million people, derive their living from coffee. Traditionally coffee has been the primary source of foreign exchange for Central America, although in importance, coffee has been overtaken by tourism and manufacturing in recent years, it still represented 11% of export revenues in 1999,” he says.

CATIE ‘s program GeoCafe, was designed to address the problem of the price downturn in the Costa Rican coffee industry. Though things are finally looking up when it comes to the coffee crisis, CATIE hopes to come up with solutions to keep the crisis from ever coming back again. The project’s goal is to consolidate information to promote differentiation of coffee qualities in Costa Rica, in turn, achieving the best quality of coffee. The use of cultivars, plant management and final processing does this.

Some of the statistics that CATIE has presented in order to demonstrate how their program has been effective in the coffee community do indeed show a positive contribution. CATIE trained 4,500 farming households in Nicaragua for two years (about 30% of the coffee farming families total in that country.) The changes the farmers implemented resulted in an 8% increase in yield, while the use of pesticides was halved. During this same period, national coffee production declined from about two million sacks to 1.2 million from 2000 to 2002. There was also an increase in the use of cultural practices such as shade management and organic fertilizers. The CATIE training ultimately resulted in families reducing their cash outlays by 10% by reducing use of agrochemicals, and hiring less labor (saving them 30%). And the program is not only located in Nicaragua; in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and last but not least, Costa Rica, hundreds of families are working with trainers to make these positive changes to their farms.

How Does A Coffee Germplasm work?
If you haven’t heard of a coffee germplasm, you are not necessarily alone. In basic, coffee varieties grown in Central America come from a very narrow genetic base. This is why CATIE, through the programs PROMOCAFE (the Cooperative Regional Program for Technology Development and Modernization of Coffee Cultivation in Central America, Dominican Republic and Jamaica) and CIRAD (International Center for Agricultural Research) has initiated a program for genetic improvement of coffee. Going on for 10 years now, the program’s goal is to create and select new and better varieties of Arabica coffee.

“CATIE has one of the largest collections of Arabica coffee germplasms in the world. That is to say a collection of plants that represent a large number of different varieties, but most importantly a large number of plants that came from collections made in Ethiopia; the CATIE collection has over 900 such landraces. These plants are very important because all the coffee in Latin America and most of the coffee in the world are descended from literally just a hand-full of plants,” says Haggar.

The Dutch took these particular plants from Java to Amsterdam. The French and Dutch then took the plants to the Guyanas and to their colonies in the Caribbean. With all the traveling, a few seeds from these countries made their way to Latin America. Essentially what this explains is that all the coffee of Latin America is descended from siblings inbred over many generations. This means that the coffee has a very narrow genetic base, and is one of the reasons it is so susceptible to diseases. It also means there is very little variation for coffee breeders to work from to create new varieties.

One of the past attempts to introduce new genes into these varieties was the creation of what are called the “catimores.” These varieties are derived from an accidental hybrid between Arabica coffee and Robusta coffee. This hybrid was then crossed with commercial Arabica varieties to produce the catimores. “The catimores are very useful because they have resistance to coffee rust and greater vigor than the pure Arabica varieties. Unfortunately they have developed a reputation for not producing the highest quality coffee, though this is much disputed,” says Haggar. Haggar also explains that the 900 Arabica landraces from Ethiopia are totally unrelated to the traditional coffee varieties that are produced in Latin America. Over 10 years ago, CATIE together with CIRAD and PROMECAFE, started crossing these Ethiopian coffees with commercial varieties. After making literally thousands of crosses and screening for production, disease resistance, and quality among many factors, about 19 of these hybrids are now undergoing field-testing on farms across Central America. Preliminary results indicate about three to four of them are showing very promising characteristics, including excellent cup profiles.

Some of the other objectives met by CATIE have been the selection of 19 hybrids, created by a somatic embryogenesis technique. This technique consists of placing the leaf explant in a tissue culture medium. This is obtained by “embryogenic callus,” and then is followed by the conversion of the embryogenic cells into “somatic embryos,” with the help of cell suspensions and temporary immersion bioreactors.

Positive Results
Over the past decade, CATIE has developed a body of knowledge to promote the production of coffee under shade, or as part of an agroforestry system. Thanks to their research, this is now widely accepted in Central America as the most appropriate way to produce coffee for the region.

Says Haggar, “CATIE has trained over a hundred organizations who attend coffee farmers across Central America in integrated pest management and the ecological management of coffee. This training has reached over 5,000 farmers in Nicaragua and several hundred in each of the other Central American countries. Farmers who received this training have been better able to weather the coffee crisis. This was over a period when most coffee farmers in the region suffered a 30-40% decline in productivity.” Haggar estimates that this training program has brought a net benefit of about 2 million dollars to Central American producers.

The Future
“ We hope that in the future we can develop concrete alliances with roasters and retailers to help supply coffees that are great to drink and that provide a decent livelihood to those that produce it,” says Haggar.

CATIE’s goals for the future are threefold. One, they hope to conserve the CATIE coffee collection and initiate the development of new varieties for producing gourmet coffees under environmentally friendly conditions. The organization is just starting a new collaboration with USDA for a more in depth analysis of the coffees in CATIE’s collection and the potential for creation of new future varieties. Though the creation of new varieties will take several more years, though modern genetic techniques, CATIE will be able to speed up the process in the future. . “However, we do not want to enter into the development of genetically modified coffee as we think this will clash with the perception of most consumers of coffee as an environmentally friendly crop,” says Haggar.

CATIE’s second goal is to develop improved management practices and criteria for the environmental coffee of production. Although many environmental certification schemes have been developed and environmental coffee management exists, according to Haggar, how the coffee is managed is based on empirical experience rather than an understanding of the ecological processes that underpin sustainability. Haggar says that long-term research programs that CATIE has initiated will provide knowledge that will permit production of coffee under ecological or organic management without the substantial losses in productivity that often happens.

Lastly, CATIE plans to design and test schemes to compensate coffee farmers for the environmental services provided by many coffee producers. “Many of the coffee certifications compensate providing habitat for birds and other fauna and flora. Shaded coffee plantations may also contribute to reduce global warming through the carbon fixed in the shade trees,” says Haggar. He adds that local service of high importance in Central America is the conservation of soil and water by shaded coffee. This is because water shortages in the dry season are becoming more severe each year, and much of the water for the cities of Central America comes from the hills where coffee is produced.

There is one additional factor that holds the key to CATIE’s future: “Although we traditionally have worked with coffee producers associations, we have generally collaborated on how coffee is produced, but not how it is sold. Further along the supply chain we need to understand and collaborate with coffee suppliers, roasters and retailers,” says Haggar. As coffee associations continue to strengthen their relationship with CATIE, there is hope that by working together, great tasting coffees and those that provide a decent livelihood to those who produce it will be one and the same.

For more information on CATIE, visit www.catie.ac.cr/café, or e-mail Jeremy Haggar at: jhaggar@ibw.com.ni.

Tea & Coffee - October/November, 2005


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