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Researchers, producing-country governments, coffee companies and others took part in an event to improve production of Robusta coffee and the livelihoods of households that produce it.

As climate change continues to affect global coffee production, Coffea arabica (Arabica) is losing its ability to perform in many coffee-producing zones due to warmer temperatures, increased plant diseases, and other factors. Amid this landscape, the industry is continuing to explore ways to leverage Coffea canephora (Robusta, including the Brazil-produced Conilon), which is generally more resilient and more resistant to disease than Arabica.

This topic was the focus of the First International Collaborative and Precompetitive Robusta Research Planning Meeting, which took place 2-3 October 2018 at the offices of the International Coffee Organization (ICO) in London.

Co-organized by World Coffee Research (WCR) and Nestlé, the meeting brought together a range of global stakeholders, including representatives from ICO and CIRAD; Robusta research centres in producing countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, India, Uganda, Vietnam, Mexico, and the members of Promecafe; and coffee companies including Nestlé, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Lavazza, Mercon Group, and Neumann Kaffe Gruppe.

The purpose of the meeting was for attendees to discuss, define, and share a common vision of the main research and development priorities for Robusta. It was a strong success, with an active dialogue and clear next steps established.

Among the key take-aways from the event were that the countries attending believe the main challenges they face in growing coffee are related to climate change, with increased drought (water deficit) and heat in Robusta-growing areas.

Quality was also mentioned as a ‘cross-cutting issue.’ Attendees indicated that two non-exclusive objectives were to be considered: first, increasing the standard quality of Robusta (clean cup, lowered bitterness), and second, aiming for ‘specialty’ Robusta quality.

Some country-specific challenges were noted, such as nematode pressure in Vietnam and the resurgence of rust in Côte d’Ivoire.

C. canephora has a wide genetic diversity (much wider than C. arabica). Furthermore, it is easy to cross C. canephora with other diploid species such as C. congensis or C. liberica. The Agronomic Research Institute of Côte d’Ivoire (CNRA) has one of the biggest coffee germplasm collections in the world. It was agreed that supporting the maintenance, evaluation, and use of CNRA’s germplasm collection is a top priority.

CNRA, as well as Cirad and Nestlé indicated that they are open to sharing these genetic resources as long as it follows the usual formal path of exchange of genetic resources.

It was observed that most countries and Nestlé have selected top Robusta varieties, those varieties are not being widely used by farmers (with the notable exception of Vietnam). The reasons for that range from a lack of efficient seed sector for mass multiplication to the hesitation of farmers to drop old resilient varieties.

Taking all of this information into account, the parties in attendance at the meeting decided unanimously to immediately create a technical committee to move forward with a global Robusta International Multilocation Variety Trial to test the performance of different Robusta varieties in several locations around the world. The trial will follow the same format as WCR’s International Multilocation Variety Trial for Arabica, which has brought over 30 top varieties of Arabica to 23 countries around the world for rigorous testing.

Christophe Montagnon, scientific director of WCR, said the Robusta IMLVT is an exciting outcome from the meeting. “The Robusta IMVLT will be a key element of a global strategy for advanced research on Robusta,” he said. “Through the IMLVT, we can gauge the performance of existing varieties around the world as researchers prepare the Robusta varieties of tomorrow. It is also the best way to give birth to an international Robusta research community that will soon go beyond IMLVT and address advanced research for this species.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, the CNRA proposed to that the next group meeting should take place in early 2019 in Côte d’Ivoire, allowing it build on the important conversations that were started at this inaugural Robusta gathering.

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