Race to Save Coffee
Will Coffee Ever Cost $20 a Cup? Yes, and Sooner Than You Think
Lucile Toniutti, a molecular coffee breeder with the nonprofit organization World Coffee Research (WCR), wants you to know the cup of single-origin you ordered this morning might not be around tomorrow.
“It’s difficult to talk about sometimes with coffee drinkers, you know,” Toniutti says.
Last year, more coffee was harvested than ever before in history. Traditionally tea-drinking nations, like China and Japan, now also have booming coffee cultures. Some projections indicate global coffee demand could still double by 2050. But by the same year, thanks to rising global temperatures, roughly half of the Earth’s land suitable coffee-growing will no longer be viable for coffee farming. In other words, to keep pace with demand, producers will need to grow twice the coffee with half the space.
“We’re going to have less coffee, higher prices and coffee that is less differentiated in taste and lower on the quality scale,” says Dr. Tim Schilling, WCR’s founder and the newly appointed head of WCR Europe. “If everybody is okay with the fact that we are going to be paying $10 to $15 a cup for crappy coffee in thirty years, that’s fine.”
But there’s hope. It comes in the form of a lab-grown variety of coffee called the F1 hybrid.
Unlike crop staples like rice, of which there are more than 500,000 known varieties, barely 125 different varieties of the coffee plant have been found; of those, we only drink two. This has led to what can be described as a “genetic bottleneck,” in that the plant’s gene pool is too shallow to effectively adapt to the world changing around it.
“Without a big gene pool, every change in an ecosystem has the chance to cripple the plant. Basically, it’s extremely fragile,” Toniutti says. F1 hybrids possess what she calls “hybrid vigor.”
The concept of the F1 hybrid isn’t new. It was conceived in the late 1990s, and the first varieties were planted in the early 2000s, albeit with less-advanced methodologies and scientific instruments. Today, WCR is able to identify specific strings of genetic and molecular code that indicate disease resistance, crop yield, high cup quality and more, helping them to select the best two parents with the most biologically diverse DNA set. The result is the modern F1, which grows faster, bears fruit a year earlier and is less susceptible to disease.
But hybrid breeding isn’t easy, or cheap. The coffeea plant is a self-pollenizer, meaning it has both male and female reproductive organs. Every seedling offspring is inbred, which precludes them from being true F1 hybrids. “They carry recessive and dominant traits from past generations,” Toniutti says, “this dulls the strengths of the F1.”
For now, the only way to produce F1s is through cloning and in vitro fertilization. Both methods are expensive to perform, which means the plants demand a high price. According to George Howell, a longtime flag bearer for small coffee farmers, the math doesn’t add up.
“The cost is multiple times higher than just taking a usual seed to plant,” Howell says. “From a farmer’s perspective, that expense is too high to justify. The question becomes, can it be made affordable, and is it going to be one of those monopolistic things where we’re always paying a fortune for it?”
So what happens if people like Toniutti can’t crack the code? Hannah Neuschwander, Toniutti’s colleague at the WCR, suggests looking to El Salvador, which as recently as 2012 was among the brightest and most well-supported coffee origins in the world. Then political turmoil, gang violence, drought and an outbreak of rust leaf struck the country in quick succession; today, El Salvador produces 70 percent less coffee.
“That’s the risk if we can’t get these hybrids out,” Neuschwander says. “Origins will start dropping like flies, and the wealth of producing nations will vanish.”