SANTA BARBARA, California (Reuters) — It’s one of the most valuable agricultural commodities in the world and yet scientists know surprisingly little about coffee.
“When we started looking at coffee we started to realize that it is kind of like an orphan crop. Very little has been done in introducing advance genetic technology to improve coffee,” said Juan Medrano, a professor of genomics at the University of California Davis.
But now the secrets behind what makes an espresso so tasty are starting to be revealed. Scientists in California have mapped the genome for Arabica coffee, the species that accounts for 70 percent of global consumption.
“DNA is the book of life. So if we can understand the genes that are involved in relation to different traits, related to production, related to quality, related to adaptation, that adds value to our knowledge,” Medrano added.
Such knowledge will help protect coffee plants against climate change and disease. Genetic secrets could also allow farms like Jay Ruskey’s in Southern California to thrive outside the tropical zone where most coffee production is currently located.
“I think coffee has the potential to be a growing industry in California and I think if all things work correctly, we could make southern California a specialty coffee capital of the world,” said Ruskey.
To do this Ruskey needs to know how best to breed his plants, allowing them to adapt to a different climate. All this information exists in the coffee plant’s genetic make-up.
“The advantage of being in California is that we can actually provide it (coffee plant) with exactly the water and even nutrition requirements with irrigation. We can provide it when it wants it and how much it wants it. And we can do it in a dry climate so we can avoid diseases that are traditional in the moist humid coffee climates,” Ruskey added.
Deciphering coffee’s genetics is even more important for traditional farms in the tropics where pests and disease are a serious threat.
“You can control pests and disease with chemicals, but the most sustainable and positive was to do it would be by breeding, by breeding disease resistant into the crop and preventing those problems,” said Medrano.
To breed properly, farmers need as much information about their crops as possible.
With an estimated 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed every day globally, production and export of coffee are a multi-billion dollar enterprise, employing millions of people in more than 50 countries.
The scientists say the more we learn about coffee’s genes, the better our chances of protecting it against a changing climate – making sure we all enjoy that perfect caffeine hit for many years to come.