Nestlé, whose coffee brands include Nescafe and Taster’s Choice, has obtained a patent on a genetically modified coffee plant that will improve the solubility of instant coffee powder made from its beans. The patent also includes other aspects of the process which produces the coffee powder.
Nestlé has come under fire in the past for not labeling products that contain GE ingredients and insufficient third-party testing. Must we take any risks for something as mundane and profit-oriented as faster-dissolving instant coffee?!
Other genetic manipulation going on by various groups working with coffee includes goals such as:
- Simultaneous ripening of coffee cherries. Cherries would ripen to a certain point then stop; final ripening would be triggered by spraying with ethylene, at which point they could be picked by machines. To be practical, this would have to be done on short coffee varieties that also require high chemical inputs to maintain good yields. A lot of this work is being done at the University of Hawaii, and Kona coffee growers strongly object to any GM coffee being put in the field in Hawaii, as they are concerned about the genes “escaping” and contaminating their own plants, a situation not without precedent.
- Beans with little or no caffeine. As explained in a previous post, caffeine protects plants from pests, so “decaffinated” plants may require more chemicals to protect them. The work I’ve seen so far is being done on Coffea canephora — robusta — which has far more caffeine than higher grade arabica beans. This might seem like starting at a disadvantage, but the choice is no doubt due to the ability to mass-produce robusta in large, sunny, chemically-doused plantations. There are naturally-occurring low caffeine coffee varieties that are bitter and not commerically viable. Attempts to breed these traits into arabica varieties (which are not closely related) have been unsuccessful. Recently, several mutant low caffeine arabica plants were located in Ethiopia.
- Pest-resistant varieties. Initially, crops implanted with proteins that are lethal to pests (usually derived from Bt) may lead to decreased pesticide application. Many transgenetic Bt crops target specific pests, and that may cut
down on broad-spectrum insecticide application. On the other hand, other case studies have indicated that there is a lack of support for claims that GM crops result in a widespread decrease in chemical use. Pests are more likely to become resistant to insecticides in genetically-modified crops than are crops that are sprayed with pesticides. There is also concern about impacts on non-target organisms. Since many coffee pests can be kept in check by careful cultivation and integrated pest management the risks associated with GM Bt coffee seem unreasonable.