Inside the NASA of coffee

Colombia’s national coffee research centre houses a team of scientists, devoted to preserving the country’s status as world-leading coffee cultivator


In a petri dish under a microscope, an insect not much bigger than a grain of sand is wriggling. Replaced by a second dish, a group of similar insects lies motionless — dead — suffocated by a cottonwool-like substance.

“The coffee plants in the field, they don’t have any resistance to these guys,” Alvaro Gaitán explains. “So we use a biological control, in this case a fungus, to attack it.”

Gaitán is the director of Colombia’s Centro Nacional de Investigaciones de Café, or Cenícafe, a coffee research institute based 45 minutes from the city of Pereira. The insects in the petri dishes are coffee berry borers, a species of beetle that possesses a voracious appetite for coffee beans.

“The problem with the borer is that it hides,” Gaitán says. “We call them ‘cryptic pests’, because they remain hidden all the time; trying to do something to attack the insect is hard. The nice thing about working with biological controls is that the control kills the insect, and then the population of whatever you apply just goes down — it’s a natural solution to the problem.”

Coffee in Colombia is big business. In the first half of the current coffee year, which runs from October to March, Colombia exported some 6.8 million bags of Arabica coffee beans. In the face of challenging weather conditions caused by El Niño, this represents a 14 per cent increase on the previous year and accounts for 19 per cent of global Arabica exports. Given Colombia’s relative size compared to neighbour and rival Brazil — as well as the number of coffee growing countries around the world — this is no small feat.

columbian coffee

Founded in 1938, Cenícafe’s work focuses on assisting Colombia’s 500,000 coffee-farming families. This includes helping them to implement good agronomic practices, protect coffee plants from pests and diseases, and improve overall coffee yield. The institute combines teams of researchers and extension service providers to keep Colombian coffee farmers — who on average have just three years of education — up to date with the latest techniques and innovations.

The majority of Colombian coffee farms are also small, family-run enterprises, so Cenícafe works to provide alternatives to chemical controls, thereby also protecting farmers’ and their families’ health.

“We try to keep chemical exposure to a minimum,” Gaitán says. “It’s not the same as in Brazil. There, plantation owners have huge plantations and they live in the city. They just have to make a phone call and somebody does a chemical spray. Here, people live next to the farm. It’s critical for us to keep the amount of chemicals to a minimum.”

Supported by the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros (FNC), the institute’s research helps keep Colombia ahead of the game when it comes to cultivating and exporting coffee. Described by Hernan Mendez, the chief executive of Colombian coffee chain Juan Valdez, as “the NASA of coffee”, Cenícafe’s headquarters is a warren of libraries and open-plan laboratories. Buried in a nature reserve within Colombia’s Caldas department, the surrounding countryside is impossibly green, and the air is like that of a zoo reptile house.

Research undertaken at Cenícafe is conducted by a team of around 65 scientists, supported by just under 200 other employees in locations throughout Colombia. The institute’s annual budget from the FNC is worth around $7 million (£4.85 million), with Cenícafe taking donations worth up to $5 million from other sources, including government ministries, foreign governments and private companies.

COFFEE RUST

Cenícafe is largely occupied with its long-running battle against a powdery red fungus known as ‘coffee rust’. With Latin name Hemileia Vastatrix, coffee rust is a disease that, like the coffee plant, originates from Africa and first arrived to the Americas, in Brazil, in 1970.

“When coffee rust arrived in Brazil, everyone started to check whether or not their plants were resistant and the answer was that none of the plants were,” Gaitán says. “All the plants in America were susceptible and the whole continent was at risk.”

When rust arrived in India and Sri Lanka at the turn of the 20th century, the disease decimated plantations over a period of ten to fifteen years; for this reason, coffee farmers all over the world fear the fungus. Colombia suffered a serious rust outbreak in 2009-10, caused by a perfect storm of wetter weather, higher fertiliser costs — linked to the high oil price at the time — and older coffee plantations.

“Back then, 75 per cent of our plantations were susceptible to coffee rust and only 25 per cent were resistant,” Gaitán says. “Now, around 70 per cent of our plantations are resistant, and 30 per cent are susceptible. Most of these plantations are what we call young plantations; they are five years old which is a perfect period for coffee production. All of these plantations are using good agronomic practices. For some years the coffee production went down but now we have managed to restore it and we are in a much better situation than before.”

coffee worker
Worker shifts 40kg bags of coffee at a co-op warehouse in Manizales

Gaitán says that Colombia is leading the way in terms of coffee rust resistance. While Honduran plantations are the next closest with resistance of around 60 per cent, many other Latin American countries - including Brazil and Peru — have plantations with just 5 per cent resistance to the disease.

“Central American countries had a huge attack of coffee rust, which I believe is mostly to do with the weather,” he continues. “However, the average age of a plantation in some of those places is 15 or more years. That puts you in a very bad situation to respond and react to coffee rust.”

Following Colombia’s outbreak of the disease, 11 neighbouring Caribbean and Latin American countries - including Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua — were forced to declare coffee rust emergencies between late 2012 and early 2013. Incidents like this are, naturally, linked to coffee price increases; demand has been growing as appetite increases in emerging markets in Asia.

Compared to its immediate neighbours, Colombia’s efforts and expenditure to preserve its coffee industry — worth over $1 billion since 2010 — have attracted praise from the World Bank. In reality, efforts to protect against diseases have been ongoing since the 1960s, with Cenícafe crossbreeding rust-resistant plants since 1967. The institute released the first in a series of so-called composite varieties in 1982. Instead of creating one variety of plant to be resistant to coffee rust, Cenícafe scientists instead bred 40, each slightly different to the others.

“The advantage this gives you is that, even if the rust can break the resistance of one plant, it cannot necessarily break the resistance of other plants,” Gaitán says. “That reduces the risk of having huge epidemics.”

For Gaitán, the most satisfying element of working at Cenícafe is seeing the institute’s work applied to real-life situations and helping coffee farmers support their families. “When you are a scientist,” Gaitán says, “and you see that your work is helping others, that gives a lot of sense to what you are doing.

“When we export coffee, the money is distributed to all these families and to the areas where those families are living. We see the coffee business in Colombia as part of the social fabric of our society.”