SEEDS OF SUSTAINABILITY

Last Updated on November 15, 2021 by Nick Baskett

There is a massive and unmet need in most coffee growing regions for new coffee trees.  But being able to find, let alone afford, high quality, genetically conforming traditional and improved varieties is the exception rather than the rule. 

It’s surprising that this sustainability constraint receives so little attention. Perhaps it’s because we see producers around the world, saving seeds from their prized trees and doing their own nursery work. There’s the appearance of the need being met.

Perhaps it’s because seed sector work is often an area where government policy and subsidy play such an important role, again, giving the impression that someone, somewhere is figuring this out. I suspect the complexity inherent in seed sectors is a contributing factor.  Whatever the reasons for this lack of attention, not only does the private industry have a role, but improvements in the coffee seed sector will be slow, or may never come to pass, without the attention, advocacy, and investments from private industry.

In this article, I will break down the seed sector into three functional areas and highlight investment opportunities that should be/could be included in private sector sustainability portfolios.  Most importantly, I’ll focus on the weakest, and arguably the most important aspect of these three functional parts: making high-quality seedlings available to coffee growers through the development of ‘last mile’ nurseries. 

Most importantly, I’ll focus on the weakest, and arguably the most important aspect of these three functional parts: making high-quality seedlings available to coffee growers through the development of ‘last mile’ nurseries. 

The Need

Here’s a little-known or rarely discussed fact: most of the world’s coffee fields are underplanted.  In 2018 Enveritas interviewed over 20,000 farmers and applied statistical models to understand the productivity and farm size characteristics of coffee producers in 20 countries. 

By doing this, the average farm size and the average number of trees per hectare were calculated.  The shortfall revealed was stunning: 1,000 trees per hectare were planted when 3000+ could be planted.1  In many regions, it’s worse.  This shortfall represents a profound constraint to the economic sustainability of producers and to the economic development of coffee growing regions around the world.

Producers learn all manner of “good agricultural practices” (GAP), and post-processing techniques that increase the quality and value of their coffee, but if a farm only has half the optimum planting density, the impact of sustainability initiatives – the GAP, the raised and covered drying beds, quality grading training, the financial literacy – will have limited financial benefit.  Limited financial benefit for producers means low adoption rates of improved practices.

Photo courtesy of World Coffee Research

The age and condition of the trees is also a big issue. Old, neglected trees tend to have low yields.  Think of all the capillaries (Xylem) in a tree pulling water and nutrients up through the trunk.  Over time these little pipes get damaged, reducing the plant’s capacity for growth.  “Stumping,” which is a renewal strategy for old, low producing trees, is cutting the plant near its base, allowing for fresh regrowth after a year or two. This is great for revitalization, but doesn’t add trees, and doesn’t allow a producer to take advantage of an improved variety that may produce far better for her.

Access to rust tolerant varieties with cup quality and shade tolerance baked into their genetics is foundational to coffee sustainability.

Gender Equity Event

Why is there not stronger demand from producers?

There are reasons why coffee farmers are not rushing to plant more, however.  Densification is not a panacea.  After availability, another constraint to densification and renovation is that new seedlings are a risky, expensive investment. Any combination of high per plant costs, low quality, low survivability rates, unknown genetics, means potential ongoing losses that can impact a farmer for years.

And because a tree doesn’t produce a crop in year one, and sometimes, depending on the variety, not in year two, or much in year three, the return on investment is deferred.  One needs to be optimistic about coffee prices and one’s own life span before making such an investment.  As we know, the average age of coffee producers in non-African countries is often high.

And densification isn’t necessarily the right move for a producer who can’t afford or has limited access, or little experience with fertilizers.  For many producers with underutilized land, often intercropping with beans or ground nuts or other crops may be a better use of the underutilized area, rather than doubling down on coffee.

And producers are not typically driving the demand side for genetically verified improved varieties. Often, they don’t know much about varieties. It’s not their fault. If you only have a few known varieties in your area, those are what you know.  If the seeds have come from a trusted farmer in the area, that can be about as good as it gets. If my neighbor is selling plantlets for $0.10 each, or if I can produce my own plants from my own seeds… why would I spend 2x, 3x more?

Photo courtesy of World Coffee Research

Yet, without access to high-quality plantlets and improved varieties, producers will largely remain fragile, unprepared for the changing weather patterns and the increasingly severe weather events.  They will struggle to meet the market’s demand for quality, struggle to fight off pests and diseases, and many will struggle to sustain anything close to a verified living income.  The “net-zero” commitments we are hearing from roasters and from green suppliers, along with growing interest in “regenerative” agriculture, will all drive interest and investments in agroforestry.  But agroforestry isn’t just planting shade trees on an existing full-sun coffee farm.  The choice of coffee variety in these systems can often be the difference between success and failure. 

What is a “seed sector” and what investments can the private industry make to support it?

This is a problem that the coffee industry can impact, both collectively in multistakeholder initiatives and as individual companies who invest directly into their own supply chains. But how?  What do we need to know before taking the next step?  How and where can industry invest their sustainability dollars to improve access to high-quality trees?

A seed sector refers to the network of organizations and businesses supporting pre-farming activities like agronomic research, variety development, and the production/distribution of plant material and technical assistance to producers. This is the beginning of agricultural value chains. Comparatively speaking, the seed sector supporting coffee growers is very, very weak. Its underfunded and strategic coordination among the many actors is more the exception than the rule. 

A seed sector contains the businesses, nonprofits, universities, and government ministries associated with preserving genetic diversity, conducting research (agronomic, pests & diseases, climate impact, etc.), breeding and variety development, plant distribution, and technical assistance dissemination. Walk through the produce section of any grocery store and everything you see is supported by various seed sectors.  Carrots, beans, cauliflower, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, apples, pears, berries, all of it is supported by seed sectors.  Coffee has much to learn from these other crops.

The functional parts of the coffee seed sector can be clarified by the objectives of each part:

  1. genetic preservation of wild and cultivated varieties;
  2. the use of that genetic material to breed new varieties, as well as the associated research that contributes to farmer profitability and risk mitigation;
  3. the dissemination of both the plant material and the needed technical assistance to producers.

Generally speaking, the path to riches is not found by preserving genetic material or by conducting research, or by supplying scrappy farmers around the world with the plant material and the agronomic technical support they need.  Without profits to motivate private investments, governments in partnership with their universities, heavily subsidize seed sectors around the world. 

For example, in the United States, 1862 brought legislation providing the first “land grants” to colleges that would support farmers with technical support and variety development. There were 57 in all, and this need for agronomic R&D and farmer training jump-started the United States post-secondary school system.  Since then, the legislation has been expanded four times, providing research and development money to more colleges and universities, and “The Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act of 1994,” expanded support for an additional 36 indigenous institutions.  Something like this system can be found in many developed countries.

In developing countries, where coffee and cacao are grown, however, seed sector subsidies are usually inadequate, unstable, or nonexistent. World Coffee Research, a multistakeholder initiative in coffee, took an important step into this space, and now is receiving about half its revenue from private coffee supply chain members.  But even their budget ($3-4$ million/yr.) is about 20% of what they need to achieve their mission and goals.

The European Union’s Breedcafs project, led by French Tropical Agronomic Research Center (CIRAD), is another example of seed sector development. CIRAD is developing and testing new coffee varieties, including “F1 hybrids,” researching their performance for agroforestry, among other objectives.  Colombia, Brazil, Vietnam and more recently, Mexico, have all stood up efforts that narrowly serve the interests of their respective producers, usually funded by an export tax paid by producers. But these efforts are small when compared with the global unmet need.  No country has this figured out.

What is genetic preservation and what are the sustainability investments available to the private industry there? 

There are two coffee collections on the planet that are well documented and currently “available” for breeders and researchers. (“Available” and “accessible” in this case are two different things, but that issue deserves its own article.) One of the most well-known depositories can be found at The Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica (CATIE). This collection has approximately 1,900 accessions from Ethiopia, Yemen, Kenya, Tanzania, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico, and contains more than 9,000 coffee plants on 8 hectares and at CATIE’s Cabiria Farm.

Photo courtesy of World Coffee Research

The other open collection of wild and cultivated coffee trees can be found at the National Center for Agronomic Research (CNRA) of Cote d’Ivoire.  It maintains 7,830 accessions representing 317 populations. These come from Guinea, Cameroon, Kenya, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Congo, Madagascar, and Cote d’Ivoire, and are planted in an 8 ha area in the locality of Divo (Lôh Djiboua region). CNRA also maintains a cacao collection of over 1600 accessions and many other collections.

(It’s important to note that coffee seeds lose their viability quite fast.  Storing seeds in cold storage, as can be done with some seeds, isn’t an option for coffee.  One must keep a live plant going to preserve its genetics. Cryopreservation is being studied, but, as of yet, isn’t viable.)

Though the entire global coffee and cacao industries depend upon these organizations and their collections, they are both in trouble. In 2016, World Coffee Research and the Global Crop Diversity Trust spearheaded the development of the Global Conservation Strategy for Coffee Genetic Resources, providing a roadmap for the preservation of wild coffee species and varieties. Their plan calls for a $25 million endowment to support coffee germplasms around the world, with the first money raised being used to immediately secure current collections. 

To date, little progress has been made on this goal. Less than $100,000 had been raised, though a couple of positive steps have been taken. For instance, a plan to better secure the CATIE collection has been developed, and CNRA collection has been captured in a searchable database (Genesys). To date, however, these and several other collections remain fragile, and it will require pre-competitive cooperation among industry stakeholders to change this. It will also take large, 7-figure gifts from that small group of individuals and entrepreneurs who have secured their fortunes in coffee with these plants.  (For more information about supporting this effort, contact: Luis Salazar luis.salazar@croptrust.org; I’m looking at you Mr. Boersma. 😉)

What is the importance of breeding and research, and what sustainability investments are available there?

The importance here is hard to overstate. If a coffee breeder were a painter, varieties would be the colors on their palette. Where I live in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, hazelnuts (filberts) were being destroyed by a fungus called the Easter Filbert Blight. Breeders at Oregon State University have released 8 different varieties with names like ‘Yamhill,’ ‘Jefferson,’ ‘Dorris,’ ‘Wepster,’ ‘McDonald,’ and the ‘PollyO,’ all of which were bred to resist the blight and meet other characteristics of the “blanched kernel market.” This work prevented the eventual collapse of this industry in Oregon.  Today, Oregon’s hazelnut farmers and processors are back on a growth curve.  It’s huge, a processed value of over $160 million each year for our little valley.

Yet in coffee, where processed value is above $25 billion, and retail value is above $400 billion, every year there are fewer varieties that are “resistant” to fungus.

It’s yet to be seen if WCR will be able to coordinate and develop global breeding programs at its current funding levels. WCR is not thriving. They need your help.  This year they announced they have abandoned their biggest and most ambitious research initiative called, The Global Coffee Monitoring Program.   They have also stopped all research on Hemileia vastatrix, la roya.

What they are doing is supporting the coffee some coffee breeders with tools to do this work more effectively.  For instance, they have the world’s only international multi-location variety trial going.  The objective of this trial is to figure out what varieties grow best where.  They also are developing a concept of regional “breeding hubs,” where access to wild varieties can be leveraged to solve problems with existing varieties or to create new varieties, much in the same way as Oregon State University did for hazelnuts.  This is a vital, long term sustainability play, with payback many years in the future. (For more information about supporting WCR contact Hanna Neuschwander hanna@worldcoffeeresearch.org)

Photo courtesy of World Coffee Research

[This just in: A new four-year, $6 million grant, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI), will support a consortium led by the Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council (SHAC).  The grant will support coordinated research to address the threat of coffee leaf rust for coffee farmers in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, but its impact may extend far beyond U.S. growers to help the global coffee community combat leaf rust.]

Why are investments in breeding and research taking such a small slice of the sustainability pie? The long lead time before impact is realized is certainly one reason. But once a new variety has been developed, and there have been several very good ones developed in the last decade, the question remains, how does one get these improved to the producers who need them?  Breeding and research investments will not have an impact unless there’s a way to get those improved varieties to producers.  It’s called the “last mile” problem.

What sustainability investments can be made that support the production and distribution of plants?

What we know today about even the most professional coffee nurseries at origin is that most have serious problems. 

While talking to Emelia Umaña, Nursery Development program manager at WCR, she mentioned anecdotally.

I have talked to producers that would buy 20% more plants than they need from professional nurseries because they know that about this many will die.

Emelia Umaña, Nursery Development program manager at WCR

 Farmers are the end market for plant material, and this is an example showing their expectations are low.  They accept this loss rate.

Farmers tell me, ‘Baby plants die.’  And I’m telling them, they didn’t have to.  There’s a better way.

Emelia Umaña, Nursery Development program manager at WCR

Nursery practices, even at professional nurseries, can be improved through technical assistance, lowering risks and costs to producers.

Before a nursery develops a plantlet, they need seed.  “Seed lots” are those coffee trees that are grown to produce seed rather than green coffee for roasting.  I was surprised to learn that many nurseries don’t often have their own seed lots.  It’s common that a nursery buys seed from a reputable local producer who has plants that “look good.” This kind of producer might sell 30% of their crop to a local nursery or other producers with nurseries, with the rest headed to a roaster.

They’re just regular coffee producers that have a reputation for having good coffee. They sell part of their harvest as seed….  One of their neighbors comes by and says, ‘Well, I seen you have a good plantation. The plants look pretty. I know how much coffee you’re getting out of your farm, because I see it every day, so that makes it safe for me.’  And that’s it. That’s how many producers select their variety.

Emelia Umaña, Nursery Development program manager at WCR

Managing a seed lot so that cross-pollination and other mix-ups don’t happen is a whole other skill set than the good agricultural practices typically found among producers.  The Maximizing Opportunities in Coffee and Cacao in the Americas (MOCCA) initiative, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and implemented by a consortium led by TechnoServe, includes a nursery development strategy. The strategy is designed to improve the plant quality of professional nurseries in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru. In 2020 WCR examined 63 seed sources. 

In their recent Think & Drink update, they revealed that only 28.6% of these lots contained varieties conforming to type. In 2019 WCR evaluated seed lots in the Philippines and Mexico – in especially low-resourced lots. Here only 10% of lots contained varieties conforming to type.  Other research that was looking only at the varieties Gesha and Marsellesa (a new-ish ECOM variety) showed conformance at 39% and 91% respectively.2  Whatever the actual number is, it’s clear seed lots are a mess of mix-ups and contamination, everywhere.  Remember, these are seed lots whose owners believe contain this or that specific variety. But they do not.

It’s clear seed lots are a mess of mix-ups and contamination, everywhere.  Remember, these are seed lots whose owners believe contain this or that specific variety. But they do not.

Now, imagine the financial risk and market limitation there would be for a potato farmer in Idaho who could not be sure her planted variety, say the Russet Burbank, would meet her customer’s (McDonald’s) French fry specifications? Such risk she will never have to take. Such risk is outside the realm of possibility for her. Yet, it’s business as usual for coffee growers and buyers.

How important is knowing that varieties are true to type for roasters? 

When we talk about origins for sourcing, we talk about geography such as countries and regions within countries. We forget that often specific varieties are part of the make-up of these regions.  It’s not just roasters who market coffee by variety, as in Gesha or as Yemenia.  The specification of the region, to some extent, is the specification of variety.  Region and product development are almost one and the same for roasters.  By extension, variety and product development are one and the same. And product development, as we know, is the lifeblood of retail sales.  Regional differences in terroir and post-processing traditions also play an important role in differentiating flavor profiles, but variety can trump both those variables when it comes to cup profile.

But for farmers, varieties that are true to type are even more important.  When a coffee plant is supposed to have a tolerance to leaf rust but doesn’t, it’s a catastrophic loss. (Remember, it takes two or three years before the plant is old enough to produce, before a farmer may know what has happened.) If a producer has an established market for the true to type bourbon, but they add plants that have been accidentally crossed with a Catimor or Sarchimor with less than a great cup profile, quality and consistency can be diminished.  As those plants spread through a region, the losses increase. And those risks say nothing about the widespread opportunity costs associated with suboptimal variety selections have on profitability and living incomes.

Three new manuals were created by WCR on nursery best practices, in part supported by contributions from Lavazza Group and Keurig Dr Pepper. These manuals cover seed lot management, plant production, and guidance on the business end of running a nursery.  All this manual writing and seed lot testing is a great start. When there is a large, professional nursery, providing genetically verified varieties with appropriate substrate and grown under the right conditions, the risks to farmers are significantly reduced, and the return on investment is increased for roasters and farmers alike.

Photo courtesy of World Coffee Research

When it comes to large coffee and cacao nurseries, ECOM is a standout.  ECOM and their SMS division partnered with CIRAD over 20 years ago to develop several new, profoundly vigorous varieties.  This work led to the birth of Agritech, located in Nicaragua. Argitech is one of the world’s biggest labs capable of reproducing over 1 million F1 hybrid embryos a year.  (Like most perennial fruit crops in the world, F1 hybrids must be clonally reproduced.) SMS also manages a large network of commercial nurseries to get these improved varieties to their producers. 

But here’s where the other big constraint shows up: having access to a professional coffee nursery in the coffee lands is the exception rather than the rule.  And even when there is a professional nursery, an additional constraint is transport.  Transporting plantlets is expensive and risky, given the bad roads and tropical heat that can stress plants beyond the point of return, adding thousands of dollars to the cost of plants.

The functional parts of nursery development are:

  • Seed lots
  • Sowing seedlings
  • Raising seedlings
  • Selling/giving seedlings to farmers

Let’s assume for a moment that the seed lots in question have been found to be genetically conforming to type.  When this is the case, the earlier the planting material is provided to the farmer the better.  In other words, seeds survive the trip better than seedlings and plantlets.  But providing seeds to farmers means farmers must do more work and need more skills on raising the seedlings into plantlets, growing plantlets into trees hardened off and ready to be planted. Many things can and do go wrong when this is the case: malformed roots that stunt a plant’s production over its lifetime, the spread of soil born pests and diseases, and high rates of mortality, to name a few.

The “last mile” nursery

The problem that remains is solving the issue of “the last mile.” How do we get improved, verified varieties into the hands of producers? Can the work that professional nurseries are doing to improve the quality of their plants be leveraged to benefit more than only the most professional producers? 

First, it must be noted that in each origin, sometimes in each region within origins, there can be a different set of circumstances impacting the distribution of plant material.  As noted in the beginning of this article, seed sectors are an assembly of actors that often includes governments and national coffee institutes, universities, and private industry. 

Emelia Umaña said, “It varies a lot. The coffee seed sectors in the different countries are all very different. In Nicaragua, you have two large nurseries that control the market. And that’s it. There’s nothing else. Then you have other countries that may be just across the border, like in Honduras where there are no big nurseries. Often producers don’t really trust nurseries, so they prefer to grow the seedlings themselves.”

In a DIY nursery on a farm or at a cooperative, often producers do something called “selection” to start their nurseries and produce their needed plants.  They may have a few trees that seem to perform better than the rest. They harvest the seeds from these prized plants for their nurseries, and sometimes even grow a separate lot filled with the progeny of their favorite plants, only for the purpose of seed.  Sometimes these plants have avoided becoming infected by rust and may be thought to be resistant.  Sometimes these plants have been known to produce a good cup or have other characteristics that have inspired trust.  It’s what farmers have done as long as there have been farmers.  Sometimes government ministries are providing the seed, approved varieties, that support these efforts, sometimes private industry plays a role.

This system is not working.  Even government seed lots, once genetic testing is conducted, often turn out to be a mess.

Not only are varieties not true to type, but the plants can also be compromised by malformed roots, or contaminated soil, or any number of other things that can go wrong, leading to low survivability, low production and yield. Weak plants are more susceptible to all manner of threats: drought, pests, disease….

However, if these “do it yourself” (DIY) nurseries were given the tools to improve their practices, along with the technical assistance to stand up clonal propagation in some cases with techniques like “micro-cutting,” a propagation technique that doesn’t require a lab capable of embryogenesis, a bottom-up approach to developing the seed sector could make significant impacts, providing the necessary plant material to deliver sustainable intensification with improved varieties for producers well into the future. 

Not only would farmers be able to increase the number of plants per hectare, but they could replace old trees with a variety capable of delivering 100% more cherry per tree than the tired, old trees.  Or, a renovation plan can set out to replace old trees with something that can deliver on cup quality, while providing the best possible genetic protection against rust. Or varieties particularly well suited to agroforestry could replace varieties that were best suited for full sun.  Farmers that can select variety based on market demand and based on their terroir and farming style will lower risks and increase climate resiliency.

Focusing attention on the existing dispersed network of DIY nurseries will be an important strategy for the seed sector development in coffee. Though supporting big professional nurseries is vital, and supporting big nurseries is a necessary first step, big nurseries will not soon be able to meet the needs of global producers. The strength of the dispersed DIY network of nurseries is that it is dispersed, located near the producers they serve, trusted by the producers they serve.

Partnership and business relationships between large professional nurseries and the smaller cooperative and private nurseries will be a key strategy that results in access to more, better, plant material for coffee producers.  And the additional sales for large nurseries will help provide a market incentive to clean up their seed lots and cultivate improved varieties that are best suited for the climates expected 15-20 years down the road. These small nurseries could also be provided with a variety of shade trees, to support the transition towards regenerative agroforestry systems.

I’m currently working with Dr Montagnon of RD2 Vision and a small team of agronomists to develop this “last mile” strategy. We will be offering it soon to roasters and suppliers who want to work together to solve this problem in their own supply chains. These initial pilots will be run in origins that pose the least number of barriers, and the greatest possible chance of success. It’s possible to get great trees, get the right trees, into the fields of producers beyond the range of large professional nurseries. It’s also imperative.

Underwriting the initial costs to establish a system of verified seed lots, in combination with the necessary technical assistance to produce seedlings and clones is the first step to standing up an economically sustainable, small scale, nursery program.  Roasters are key.  The market must require, and help pay for, variety verification, not only for their cherished blends but to ensure the viability and resiliency of the producers in their supply chains.  Though producers may be slow to try a new variety, the market incentive has proven to be transformative again and again.

Corporate sustainability portfolios without nursery development are missing a vital tool. They are missing the foundation that supports the farming systems they depend upon. But the coordination and market connection between small and large nurseries that leverages the work being currently being done has yet to be modelled. Technical training for small nursery development, plus access to improved varieties, is a winning combination.

And if you’re concerned about the “youth in coffee” problem, nothing brings more hope and excitement to young coffee-producing entrepreneurs than varieties that can lower risk and increase income.  Our development team will also be using the Partnership for Gender Equity’s new tool, the “Gender Equity Index,” to inform the development and implementation of the project.

Though the smaller nurseries will not soon produce the quality of plant material that larger, highly professionalized ones can, the level of improvement possible on the small nursery remains transformative, nonetheless. 

Sustainability minded Coffee Roasters describe their supply chains using phrases like, “From bean to cup….”  But before there is a bean, there is a tree, and before there is a tree, there is an entire interconnected network of players in the background serving producers.  Increasing the capacity and professionalism of small, dispersed nurseries is among the first activities to undertake on the critical path towards coffee and cocoa sustainability.


1. If these 1,000 trees have 3 stems instead of the recommended 1 stem, it is possible to have 3000 stems per Ha with only 1000 trees. Multiple stems can help some producers who are underplanted.

2. Pruvot et al 2020: https://academic.oup.com/jaoac/article/103/2/325/5809455

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