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Apr 10, 2012

Brazil's Quest for the Bean Without the Buzz - Hybridization Efforts to Develop Decaf Coffee Plants

Instituto Agronômico de Campinas, 
historic building established in 1887 
by Brazil's Emperor Dom Pedro II
The Instituto Agronômico de Campinas's Centro de Café is one of the primary coffee research centers in the world. For several decades its researchers have been working on discovering a coffee plant that is naturally decaffeinated. A publication in Nature in March 2012 highlights some of their challenges and near successes.

The majority of coffee plants in cultivation today come from six species. Of these, two species - coffea canephora (better known as robusta) and coffea arabica are the best known and most popular. Coffea arabica is the most popular in taste tests, grows in cooler climates, and has a 1.2% caffeine value. Coffea robusta is primarily used in instant coffee and low-quality blends, grows in warm climates, and has a caffeine value of 2-3%.


With a few exceptions, decaffeinated coffee being produced commercially today requires that a chemical process be used to rid the coffee beans of any caffeine. However, there are another 100 other species and some of these are naturally low in caffeine content. They offer the possibility that the right combination of traditional hybridization or gene-modification might result in naturally decaffeinated coffee plants. The challenge is to find the right genetic combination. This hampered by the fact that coffee plants have a long gestation time until they mature sufficiently to yield beans. Other factors are that the offspring of low caffeinated crosses have resulted in plants with higher caffeinated beans and plants with low bean yields.
Instituto Agronômico de Campinas,
modern lab facilities have been home to
decaffeinated coffee hybridization research since 1975
The Instituto Agronômico de Campinas (IAC) was founded as an agricultural extension station in 1887 by Brazil's Emperor Dom Pedro II. One of its first modern scientists was Alcides Carvalho (1913-1993) whose work on coffee hybrids produced plants resistant to the coffee rust fungus that attacked the Brazilian coffee harvests in the 1970s. Today, only an estimated 9% of ongoing research projects at IAC are focused on coffee. These address a variety of issues including: productivity (yields), quality, pest resistance, soil recovery, climate change, and sustainability.

One of IAC's principal investigators working on unlocking the potential for decaffeinated coffee hybrids is Maria Bernadete Silvarolla. She has been working on this project for the past 20 years and her research picked up on work started by previous researchers in 1975. She collaborates closely with another Brazilian researcher, Paulo Mazzafera who is affiliated with the Biology Institute at the University of Campinas (Biology Institute, Universidade Estadual Campinas also known as Unicamp). They have worked with coffea arabica germplasm that was collected from seven regions in Ethiopia by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organiztion (FAO) between 1964-65. Ethiopia is one of the primary centers of origin for all coffee plants. These Ethiopian cultivars were grown in Turrialba, Costa Rica until they were transferred to the IAC in 1975. In addition to the Ethiopian varieties, Silvarolla and Mazzafera have also added the Brazilian cultivars Catuaí Vermelho and Mundo Novo into their comparative research.
Paulo Mazzafera, (Instituto de Biologia, Unicamp),
Maria Bernadete Silvarolla (IAC) and
Luís Carlos Fazuoli (IAC).
Photo: Unicamp, 2004

In 2004 they identified several coffee hybrids that have low caffeine content (0.06-0.1%). Specifically, 68 progenis from the Kaffa region had a caffeine value between 0.46-2.82% and 22 progenies from the Illubabor region had caffeine values between 0.42-2.90%. Their task is now to produce seedlings with high enough yields to make them viable for commercialization.

Any coffee with a caffeine value between 0.6-1% is considered an intermediate-caffeine coffee. In nature, several intermediate and caffeine free have been identified. In fact, as early as 1901 Gabriel Bertrand of the Pasteur Institute in Paris discovered a caffeine-free species of coffee on Grande Comore island near Madagascar. Today, Italian coffee-producer Illy already has a low-caffeine variety on the market. The problem is that these varieties are either extremely bitter or produce extremely low yields and this limits their commercial viability.

In 2006, in an effort to speed up his Brazilian experiments, Mazzafera decided to take a slightly new approach to his research. He soaked the seeds of a productive coffea arabica variety in a chemical solution that produces mutations. Of the resulting 28,000 seedlings, he has identified seven plants that intermediate to low caffeine values. As he waits for the plants to mature, he has already come up with "Decaffito" as a trademark for any potentially new, commercially viable cultivar he might discover.

Overall, in commodity markets, the global coffee market is estimated at US $15-20 annually. Major exporters are Brazil, Colombia, and Vietnam. The decaffeinated coffee market is worth an estimated $2 billion of this total.

For more see:

"Instituto Agronômico de Campinas - Its quest for improvement in agriculture make it a key international resource," Nucoffee Press Release, 30 April 2010.

"Unicamp e IAC annuciam cafeeiro descafeinado, Unicamp Press Release, 24 June 2004.

Borrell, Brendan. "Plant Biotechnology: Make it Decaf," Nature, 483, 264-266 (14 March 2012).

Silvarolla, Maria Bernadete, Paulo Mazzafera, and Marinez Muraro Alves de Lima. "Caffeine Content of Ethiopian Coffea Arabica Beans," Genetics and Molecular Biology, 23:1, São Paulo, Brazil (Mar. 2000)

About Margaret


CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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