Genetically-engineered coffee

by on December 26, 2006

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.
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Revised on September 19, 2014

Posted in Coffee news and miscellany,Corporate coffee

BirdBarista March 10, 2008 at 4:50 pm

I didn't say pest-resistant varieties are not needed. I said "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." Coffee borers, living the bulk of their lives inside a coffee bean, are difficult to adequately control with chemicals. It's my understanding that there is very good success controlling borers with pheromone traps and making sure overripe cherries are not left on the trees or on the ground after harvest. My point, if I may reiterate it, is that there are risks with with GM pest-resistant crops which may be unreasonable. I'd be especially worried about harm to non-target organisms in the tropics.

Inoculated Mind March 10, 2008 at 2:56 pm

I would like to dispute your claim that pest-resistant varieties are not needed – aren't you also saying in this post that insect pests such as the cherry borer are a problem? You can't have it both ways.

IPM does a great deal to help manage pests, but it does not eliminate the problem, nor the sprays required to keep them from destroying crops. I find it interesting that many of the people who want to reduce pesticide use are through their short-sighted anti-GE activism, helping to ensure that pesticide use continues unabated.

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