C&B Notes

Coffee’s Gene Pool

As worldwide coffee supplies tighten, Tim Schilling serves as the “Indiana Jones” of the industry:

Tim Schilling trudged through the African wilderness, trailing a barefoot tribeswoman named Nyameron.  A sort of Indiana Jones of coffee, Mr. Schilling, 59 years old, was seeking wild strains of coffea Arabica, the fragrant beans used to make most of the world’s lattes and cappuccinos.  The Texas A&M University agronomist heads World Coffee Research, a nonprofit financed by Folgers coffee maker J.M. Smucker Co., Peet’s Coffee & Tea Inc. and others.

The group’s goal is to expand the global coffee crop’s tiny gene pool…  Coffee historians believe most of the world’s Arabica coffee crop shares genetic ancestry with two 18th century plants: one brought to Europe from Indonesia, and another taken from Yemen and cultivated in Brazil.

That’s why some coffee-industry experts favor expanding the varieties of coffee being cultivated and crossbreeding plants to strengthen them.  “The holy grail is a heat-resistant varietal that provides quality coffee,” says Patrick Criteser, chief executive of Coffee Bean International, which supplies the private-label coffees to such retailers as Target and Kroger and is part of World Coffee Research.  “If we could develop that, it would solve a lot of our problems.”

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Companies are turning to exploration to ensure future coffee supplies because production has leveled off even as demand has increased, causing coffee-bean prices to quadruple since 2001.  The world consumed 17.6 billion pounds of coffee beans last year, up from 2.6 billion in 1982, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.  But production in Colombia, which provides 10% of the world’s Arabica beans, has dropped 36% since 2005.  Output in Brazil, the world’s leading Arabica producer, recently hit a four-year low.

Africa’s coffee heritage makes it a key player in the market, which will provide a series of opportunities for some countries on the continent to economically capitalize on this search for new bean sources:

Ventures like World Coffee Research must also overcome friction with national research institutions that often aim to protect local interests, notably in Ethiopia, believed to be the fatherland of Arabica foreign coffee sellers.  Starbucks and Ethiopia reached a legal settlement in 2007 after the country sought to trademark its best known coffee beans.  There, hundreds of wild varieties exist, but government officials have sometimes had a contentious relationship with its best known coffee beans.  Ethiopia wanted U.S. patents on the names of its three best coffee regions, Yirgacheffe, Harrar and Sidamo, while Starbucks sought to patent a coffee with Sidamo in the name.

Some believe that without the cooperation of Ethiopia, efforts like Mr. Schilling’s are unlikely to succeed.  “Ethiopia is where this coffee started, and they have the largest concentration of genetic material by far,” says Andrea Illy, chief executive of illycaffè SpA, an Italian espresso seller that recently joined World Coffee Research.  Mr. Schilling believes that global scientific teamwork on coffee’s problems is long overdue.  “Coffee is the second most important commodity in the world after petroleum,” he says.  “But there has been less research conducted on it than peanuts or kumquats.”