Is coffee the next Irish Potato?

December 09, 2010

In 1844 blight spread across Ireland’s white potato crop and destroyed it entirely, within a 1-2 year period. This catastrophe resulted in the death of over a million people due to famine. In the hundred years prior to the Great Famine, there had been more than 20 failures of the potato crop, but none quite so devasting. Ignorance of good agricultural process (avoiding monoculture) was part of the reason for the catastrophe, although political and socioeconomic factors also contributed.

The Great Irish Famine has often been cited as the Poster Child for the dangers of monoculture, yet the lessons we should be learning from this go ignored, again and again. As we look at the trends in coffee cultivation over the last 20 years, we see another great coffee blight in the making. There is not only the danger of new disease destroying crops, but a clear and present danger to the loss of the coffee genome through reduction of species under cultivation.

The number of species used in commercial coffee production has dropped over the years from more than dozen to just four. And two of these species, Arabica and Robusta, account for approximately 92% of world production. Excelsa has been reduced to under 6% of the world crop and Liberica, the endangered fourth species, is not even tracked for volume because it is so rarely produced.

At one time Liberica was possibly the world’s most commonly encountered coffee. During the war years (WWI and II), Liberica was exported around the world and surely was the most commonly consumed coffee in the Pacific region. When you see a picture of Humphrey Bogart relaxing on “shore leave” from his movie roles in the South Pacific, it’s a fairly sure bet that his cup of coffee had Liberica in it.

Changing world trade routes and partners and evolving economies resulted in the near demise of this uniqe bean. Liberica grows thirty feet tall and people climb ladders to pick the fruits. The beans are capable of growing an inch long and have a characteristic hooked shape, where one side is lower than the other and brings the bottom of the bean to a sharp point./files/u5153/liberica-beans250.jpg" hspace="8" height="252" align="right" width="250" vspace="8" title="Liberica beans" alt="Liberica beans" />

More importantly to the consumer, Liberica has an extraordinary taste profile. Earthy, woody, floral, leathery, caramelly, hints of tobacco and spice... these and other terms are used to describe Liberica’s taste. Yet wait a few minutes and your cup will morph into another taste profile... creamy and smooth and rich and smoky. Yes, it ripens in the cup. And blossoms over ice.

Liberica is an extraordinarily stable coffee, its aromatics nowhere near as volatile as Arabica. Sold in open bags in the Filipino marketplace, the coffee (called “Barako” or “stud” coffee after the rough and tumble coffee workers of the Batangas region) is kept on shelves in homes for weeks and boiled to serve guests as they drop by, cups skimmed off the top as with campfire coffee. The aroma fills the house and neighborhood. When we brew Liberica at our workplace, people come down from our building’s fourth floor because they can’t resist the aroma traveling up the stairs.

This genetic treasure was all but lost by the 1990s, when a concerted group effort in the Philippines located a mere 500 true Liberica plants and began an effort to repopulate the Liberica across the Philippines and the world. Today, these efforts bear fruit... and beans... as the Liberica crop has finally become high enough in volume to export limited amounts outside the Philippines. And Liberica is beginning to be cultivated in other Southeast Asian regions now.

What does this have to do with the Irish White Potato? Circa 1875, when the Arabica coffee crop across the world was being devastated by rust and the coffee leaf miner insect, only a few Arabica subspecies survived intact. Many growers turned to Liberica, a species immune to the rust and leaf miner, to save their families, economies and communities. This is how and why Liberica came to original prominence, during a period when Southeast Asian production shifted from Java to the Philippines.

Today’s focus on Arabica, a notoriously fragile species, is not good for the future of coffee or the massive economies that the world’s leading commodity (after oil and water) support. Viva Liberica and the diversity of the coffee genome!


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