Mercon Specialty and Mercon Coffee Group have been members of World Coffee Research (WCR) for almost a decade, supporting innovation in coffee agriculture via research and development. As passionate and driven members, we are aware that the coffee sector is in desperate need of technological advancements to ensure future supplies and the sustainability of production. With only a small selection of varieties available to farmers, any climate disturbance can greatly affect this industry. As WCR’s founder, Dr. Timothy Schilling, said in 2015, historically, coffee has been an “orphan crop,” meaning that it has been grown primarily in countries with few resources available to invest in research that would improve the crop’s productivity and quality. This disparity—among other challenges—has caused a loss of productivity in coffee origins over the last 10 years. For instance, severe climate events such as extreme heat, drought, and rainfall have caused significant decreases in yield and created an increased economic vulnerability for producers. This pressure has shifted the focus of the coffee industry’s needs and there is a major need to invest in variety development to increase the climate resiliency of coffee.
We connected with experts Maeve Holler and Hanna Neuschwander from World Coffee Research to dive deeper into their approach to building a better coffee world.
1. Emphasizing the importance of Earth Day, what has WCR done for coffee plant resilience to climate change and sustainability?
At World Coffee Research (WCR), we recognize that the future of coffee is only possible through innovation. Nearly all the work we do is oriented around an appreciation of the threat posed by climate change to coffee agriculture. The key focus of our research & development (R&D) is to unleash the power of coffee varieties to address this challenge. Through breeding, variety trials, and work to support the seed sector, our aim is to increase the availability of and access to better plants for farmers around the world.
Our trials help the coffee industry understand how different varieties perform in different environments, providing insight into which are best adapted for variable climates. Further, breeding enables the creation of new varieties that are resilient against shocks and stresses, such as drought, high heat, or disease, that may cause decreases in crop productivity.
2. With the funds Mercon has donated are there any specific projects WCR has used it for?
Mercon Coffee Group has been a member of WCR since 2015 and in 2020, Mercon announced its long-term partnership with our organization, becoming the first green coffee supplier to help fund WCR’s full portfolio of agricultural R&D activities and fill a seat on our board of directors. Mercon’s support enables us to execute a highly focused R&D strategy to improve arabica—and soon robusta—coffees through breeding, trials, and seed sector work in 11 focus countries. Examples of key programs Mercon has helped sustain include the development of WCR’s F1 hybrids, the implementation of the world’s largest coffee variety trial (the International Multi-Location Variety Trial), and the launch of the largest collaborative global coffee breeding program in over 50 years, Innovea.
3. How has Mercon helped achieve your research goals?
Mercon, along with our global portfolio of 150+ member companies across 30 countries, has contributed to our work through generous investment of funds, resources, and expertise. Sustainability Director Giacomo Celi provides valuable leadership and guidance on WCR’s Board of Directors. In addition, multiple quality experts have provided valuable cupping feedback on new and improved coffee varieties. Further, Mercon’s Transplanta nursery in Nicaragua was an early adopter and proponent of WCR’s nursery activities to improve genetic purity and health of seedlings. Our member companies are a vital part of our work and allow us to leverage industry support to drive innovation in coffee agriculture.
4. How have WCR’s projects helped coffee producers and their communities?
One key facet of our work is supporting national coffee programs to build their own R&D capacity to support farmers in their countries. We have partnerships with national coffee institutions for trials and breeding in countries in all three major coffee producing regions of the world. The knowledge and resources generated by World Coffee Research and our partners flow downstream for the benefit of millions of coffee producers around the world, improving productivity and quality to ensure that farmers can profitably produce coffee in the long term.
In addition to our collaborative work with national coffee research institutions, WCR also focuses on improving the professionalization of coffee seed systems and nurseries. Because coffee trees are in the ground for 30+ years, poor planting material can have consequences for farmer profitability for decades. WCR supports the development of a vibrant seed sector—bringing highly productive and high-quality coffee varieties to farmers. In 2022, WCR focused on nursery professionalization in six countries: Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Uganda.
5. What advice would you give companies in the green coffee industry?
Green coffee suppliers are a foundational part of the industry. They are also a key part of our membership base and, in particular, WCR’s Checkoff Program through which roasters and importers can contribute pennies per pound of green coffee purchased toward global agricultural R&D for coffee. For example, suppliers can support their roaster clients to participate in the program by tracking applicable green coffee purchases, adding the fee to invoices, and passing contributions through to WCR. Suppliers can double their impact by becoming WCR members and matching roaster/retailer contributions. With this, we truly encourage companies to leverage their position in the industry by becoming members of WCR and joining their peers in supporting the future of our favorite crop.
6. What does it mean to participate in WCR?
Our member companies are part of a large, global community of roasters, retailers, suppliers, and allied companies who share a vision of a brighter future for coffee. The challenges facing our industry are much bigger than one company can solve alone—and by participating as members, companies are collaboratively and pre-competitively investing in agricultural R&D to create a foundation for a vibrant, sustainable sector in a diverse array of origin countries. Together, we can make a difference.
7. What are the short-term/long-term goals WCR has? For next year? Five years?
WCR is in the middle of executing its 2021–2025 strategy to enhance country competitiveness to bolster origin diversity. This strategy responds to the threat of eroding origin diversity through a focus on accelerating progress for coffee agriculture in strategically targeted origins. We continue to place the highest priority on guiding the development of better varieties, building global knowledge, and fostering a network for advancing innovation.
Our technical focus remains the same as it has since our founding—supporting genetic improvement to heighten quality and production traits that increase profitability and climate resilience for farmers. In 2022, WCR launched a long-awaited global, collaborative arabica breeding program; in 2024, we plan to launch a robusta program as well. Our focus extends to the systems that provide farmers with access to improved varieties—the entire pipeline from breeding through field trials, to nurseries and seed value chains. You can read our full strategy here.
Join Mercon Specialty and WCR in building a better coffee world.