Photo courtesy of IAC
The Birth of Coffee Science
Coffee harvesting at Santa Elisa farm.
By Kelly Stein
A century ago, the countryside town of Campinas, one hour and a half from São Paulo, was the high-tech center of coffee production in Brazil and, probably in the world. The modern research institute — Agronomic Institute of Campinas (IAC) was the work of Portuguese emperor Dom Pedro II, known as “the Magnanimous.” Founded in 1887, it will celebrate its 130-year anniversary in June.
Investing in science in those days was primarily to assure the highest earnings for the crown. Revenue from gold and the mining of precious stones had declined and commodities such as coffee, sugar and tobacco were now the royalty’s main income. Profits were the priority.
“The institute was founded to research coffee, but IAC today is also known by its diversity in research,” explains the IAC’s general director, Sérgio Augusto Morais Carbonell.
Record coffee production, reaching more than 50 million coffee bags in some years, made Brazil the center of the world’s coffee trade. The majority of Brazilian people still proudly announce these big numbers, but few are aware of what made these huge yields possible. The answer is science.
According to IAC, more than 90% of the 4.3 billion arabica coffee plants in Brazil were developed in the institute’s labs. Some of these varietals are present in other producing countries too, but Brazil is massively planted in coffee such as red caturra IAC 477 and yellow caturra IAC 476, both selected by IAC’s specialists in 1937. The varietals mundo novo, red and yellow catuaí, red and yellow icatu, icatu precoce, tupi, obatã are other examples.
According to the institute, scientists there developed 1,060 cultivars from 99 plant species including grains, fibers, coffee, flowers, fruit, vegetables, and rubber trees during the many years of uninterrupted work.
IAC is a reference in the conventional genetic improvement of agricultural plants (using traditional, not transgenic methods) and it has an important role in programs related to genome research made in partnership with national and international organizations.
Campinas became a center for agricultural technology with a coffee division dedicated exclusively to coffee beginning in 1932.
Known as the general plan for coffee studies, “this division was responsible for giving technical assistance in the fields in order to guarantee the coffee production development,” according to Dr. Gabriel Bartolo, the general manager at Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation).
According to Bartolo, Agronomic Institute of Campinas–with its research in coffee –was the beginning of a scientific revolution in agribusiness.
Developing a resistance to disease and pests in plants, and increasing productivity as measured in yield per hectare kept scientists busy in the past, explains Carbonell, but “as soon as we successfully accomplished this task, we started working on quality per hectare,” he said.
Specialty coffee program now concentrates its work on improving sensorial quality.
“This is just a natural response to meet market demand,” explains the agronomist engineer responsible for the coffee genetic improvement at IAC, Gerson Giomo.
“The increasing growth of the specialty coffee market in 2009, led to initial studies to improve quality by investigating processing methods in combination with diverse genotypes. IAC confirmed that genetic materials can register greater sensorial quality,” he said.
These exciting results led to the establishment of a specialty coffee program in 2010. Its main goal is mapping and prospecting the unexplored plants from the large germplasm bank in IAC and strengthen scientific research related to quality. Once the available genetic material is mapped, the next step is to develop these plants for the commercial planting.
“Before new cultivars can be launch in the market it is important to subject them to extensive evaluate these creations in the fields and laboratory,” said Giomo.
According to Giomo, technological alternatives will significantly increase production of specialty coffee per hectare. New cultivars and new post-harvest techniques will also make this dream come true.