Brazil Works on Creating Weather-Resistant Coffee Bushes
By Mario Osava*
By the end of the year, biotechnology experts in Brazil hope to have a complete map of 200,000 genes of the coffee plant – information that will be of great value in reducing the crop’s vulnerability to global warming.
RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil is making steady progress mapping out the genome of the coffee plant, with the aim of obtaining a higher-quality product and making coffee bushes resistant not only to pests, but also to climate change, one of the plant’s worst enemies.
Through the Coffee Genome Project, two teams of scientific researchers are mapping out the “sequence” of 200,000 of the plant’s genes, thus making Brazil the only coffee-producing country to have engaged in such an endeavour.
The main objective is to increase the resistance of coffee bushes to disease, extreme temperatures and drought, said Embrapa Café, a branch of the Brazilian Company of Agricultural Research (Embrapa) that specializes in coffee, and is coordinating one of the research groups.
The work is being carried out in equal parts by the Brazilian Consortium on Coffee Research and Development, supervised by Embrapa Café, and a network of 20 laboratories coordinated by the State of Sao Paulo Research Foundation (Fapesp).
Coffee, which is highly sensitive to extreme temperatures, is especially vulnerable to the greenhouse effect.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of experts from a number of countries, predicts that the temperature of the earth’s surface will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius from 1990 to 2100.
A three degree rise in temperature over the next 50 years would spell disaster for coffee, and not only in Brazil, the world’s leading producer, Hilton Silveira Pinto, an expert with the Center for Teaching and Research on Agriculture, at the University of Campinas, and the author of a study on the effect of climate change on coffee cultivation, told Tierramérica.
The state of Sao Paulo, for example, would lose 24 percent of the land apt for coffee production with just a one-degree rise in temperature of the earth’s surface, according to the report by Silveira Pinto and his team of researchers.
Arabica coffee, which accounts for 70 percent of Brazil’s output, only grows in areas where temperatures average between 18 and 22 degrees, explained Silveira Pinto.
It takes only a few days of temperatures that climb above 34 degrees or plunge to near zero during the season when the plants are in bloom for the quality of arabica coffee to be affected and for at least part of the crop to be destroyed. For that reason, land apt for growing coffee is located between latitudes 20 and 25 degrees, at high altitudes.
Global warming would not keep Brazil from growing coffee, but its plantations would have to move farther south. A three degree increase in the average temperature of the earth’s surface would reduce the land planted in coffee in the state of Sao Paulo to just 38 percent of the current 97,800 square kilometers.
On the other hand, it would increase the land suitable for coffee-growing in the southern state of Paraná, where coffee is produced today only in the northernmost portion.
However, that risk can be reduced, through the global measures aimed at cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, and through biotechnology.
The Coffee Genome Project will map around 200,000 of the plant’s genes. Although that is only a small part of the plant’s total genetic code, which comprises tens of millions of genes, it is enough.
There is no reason to map out the plant’s entire genome, which is “very complex, like that of all plants,” Luiz Eduardo Aranha Camargo, with the Luiz de Queiroz Higher School of Agriculture at the University of Sao Paulo, explained to Tierramérica.
The genes to be studied are those that “express certain conditions of stress, like leaves infected by pests and roots contaminated by flowers,” he said.
The sequence of 200,000 genes being mapped out by Fapesp will be ready by the late 2002 deadline, said Camargo. “We have efficient mapping equipment and prior experience with the eucalyptus,” whose genome began to be studied last year, he noted.
After the genes have been mapped out, there will still be much to do, starting with comparing the genes in search of possible similarities, and creating a databank. The aim is to pool the information obtained by the two teams, and to make it available to all researchers interested in coffee, said Camargo.
Decoding the genome is only a first step, said the researcher. After that comes a long research process to come up with practical applications in farming, like “inducing two flowering seasons a year or modifying them so they do not depend so much on specific weather conditions,” he pointed out.
According to José Luis Rufino, technical manager of Embrapa Café, through the Coffee Genome Project, Brazil aims to stay ahead of France, which is involved in a similar undertaking.
The researchers hope the project will also have another positive effect, by renewing scientific interest in coffee plants.
Coffee was one of the first products subjected to research and attempts at genetic improvement in Brazil, but then interest began to wane among young researchers, the experts noted.
* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent.