Make mine an MLS decaff

There was a nice article recently in Nature reviewing the struggle — and it’s been a mighty struggle, which is still going on — to breed a naturally low-caffeine coffee plant. It’s worth reading in full, if you can get hold of it, but I just want to focus briefly here on this paragraph:

In 2000, Mazzafera teamed up with Silvarolla, a coffee breeder at the IAC. They shifted their focus to a group of C. arabica plants originally collected during a 1964 United Nations expedition to Eritrea and Ethiopia. Seed samples — 620 in total — were divided up and grown in several countries, including Costa Rica. Later, 308 of these lineages were collected in Costa Rica and sent to Brazil. Mazzafera believed it would be much easier to produce marketable coffee by starting with the Ethiopian C. arabica plants than by hybridizing with other species.

What’s interesting about this is that the ORSTOM (now France’s IRD), FAO and IBPGR collections made in the 1960s and 1970s, including the 1964 one alluded to above, still form the bulk of the material maintained in coffee genebanks around the world. Sure, there’s been more collecting in Ethiopia since then, but that material is much more difficult for breeders outside that country to get hold of than the results of these older international collecting initiatives.

That’s at least partly because Coffea is not among the crops which are supposed to be liable to facilitated access under the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing (MLS) being put in place by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

Ah, but wait. That reference to Costa Rica in the paragraph above really means CATIE, or the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Turrialba. And that institute has put all its collections under Article 15 of the Treaty. Yes, including coffee.

If the world is to have its naturally decaffeinated cappuccinos, a good first step might be to put in place a multilateral system for coffee too, which goes beyond the CATIE collection. That would surely help get breeders using as wide a range of diversity as possible. Or at least as is available in existing collections. That these are far from complete, especially as regards wild relatives, is well understood. But that’s something for another post.

One Reply to “Make mine an MLS decaff”

  1. Luigi: There is little evidence that the multilateral system is actually working even for Annex 1 crop distribution. For example, is Ethiopia distributing national collections of Annex 1 crops at the moment – ditto for India and lots of other developing countries? Very predominantly distribution is now from two main sources: ex-situ samples already in developed countries; and International Agricultural Research Centres. This is disturbing.
    More than ten years ago I predicted problems with multilateral benefit-sharing and suggested a modification: `MABBS’. This is Multilateral Access Bilateral Benefit Sharing. That is, Ethiopia gets directly paid for benefits arising from coffee breeding using Ethiopian germplasm. This could be a model for non-Annex 1 crops.
    It would be useful to know current efforts for other plantation crops. For example, do oil palm and cacao breeders continue get access to samples through their existing research networks?
    And Ethiopia does not have a monopoly on wild Coffea arabica – it grows in a montane forest in northern Kenya (herbarium specimens in Nairobi).
    I think that more arabica collections from cultivation on the Rift escarpment in Yemen could be useful.
    CATIE still has wild rubber left over from the US deliberate destruction of its own Amazon collections, and lots more (cacao, peach palm, lots of other species of wild Coffea, even tea).
    Both CATIE and the Ethiopian genebank were supported by the remarkable foresight of Germany starting almost 35 years ago.

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