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Genetically Modified Coffee – Around The Corner?

Since a consortium of scientists recently sequenced the coffee genome of the robusta plant variety, the possibility of genetically modified coffee took a further leap forward

Added: 13th March 2015

Since a consortium of scientists recently sequenced the coffee genome of the robusta plant variety, the possibility of genetically modified coffee took a further leap forward. By identifying the genes of this plant, it opens up the possibility of being able to modify flavour, increase pest control, and regulate caffeine production. This all needs to be combined with the commercial viability of farming the resulting plant to give a broader picture of its overall potential.
The robusta plant that the scientists focussed on accounts for around one third of total coffee consumption. It is the caffeine production within these plants that is of particular interest, which seems to have evolved independently to other plants such as chocolate. The exact reasons why the coffee plant has evolved with a higher caffeine buzz are still conjecture, with the main theories including being as a deterrent against leaf eating pests, or as an addictive substance for pollinators visiting the plant.
Either way, the potential to modify the caffeine production of the plant opens up interesting possibilities, particularly with regards to the consumer. The global market for decaf coffee is massive, yet the chemical process to remove the stimulant also removes other aromatic compounds, reducing the flavour further. Eliminating an industrial process to remove the caffeine by having a genetically modified plant that does not produce it in the first place, would be highly appealing to coffee producers.

However, if the main reason the plant has evolved was actually to produce high levels of caffeine as a natural pesticide for increased pest control, then the knock-on effect could well be a weaker, unhealthy plant. This would not be a viable farming option. Yet in comparing the coffee genome against other species, the scientists actually found a sizeable enrichment in disease-resistant genes. So obviously there is still a lot of research to be done, but the potential from the disease-resistant genes data could be to actually increase resilience to pests, plus future climate change issues, through modification.

Some of the scientists have now moved on to the Arabica plant, a hybrid of the easier to grow robusta and another plant. As a hybrid from two plant varieties the Arabica has a duplicated genome offering double the genetic information to work on. While a more complex operation, the resulting data could complement the work done with the Robusta plant and further increase the chances of commercial genetically modified coffee.
Ultimately for the consumer it will still come down to taste. Regardless of the scientific advances, and whether most consumers accept the notion of genetically modified foods, the coffee will still have to taste great after any tinkering. If this passes the test, and the new crops can show themselves to be at least as pest resistant, if not more, then perhaps the chance of genetically modified coffee being stocked on the shelves of our local stores will be more realistic.

You can however enjoy our range of non-modified coffee beans right now! The perfect beans to use with our bean to cup coffee machines.

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