A small museum, a map and a bit of genomics.
For a Filipino molecular geneticist and her team, these three could just be the right mix to give local coffee production a fresh jolt and help put the Philippines back on the “Coffee Belt”—the world’s bean-producing giants.
Dr. Maria Carmen Lagman, head of the biodiversity unit of De La Salle University (DLSU), is pioneering a project aimed at establishing and improving coffee varieties in the country in partnership with the National Coffee Research Development and Extension Center (NCRDEC).
Funded by the USAID Science, Technology, Research and Innovation for Development, the project has three centerpieces: a one-stop information shop dubbed “Coffee Museum,” a geographic information system that maps out provinces where a specific coffee variety can best thrive, and the generation of genetic tags for local coffee varieties to boost production.
“I learned that if you want to feed your elephant, you build your jungle … so that’s why I have three centerpieces to my project and not just one,” said Lagman, also an associate professor at DLSU’s biology department.
Lethargic coffee industry
The idea of doing something to fire up the country’s coffee industry anew was hatched when Lagman met NCRDEC director Dr. Ruel Mojica in Texas in 2014 while on a social entrepreneur workshop in Texas as part of her Fulbright-Philippine agriculture scholarship program at Oregon State University.
During those days, Lagman said she was already yearning to immediately put into use the new tools and skills of looking at genomes or “the whole information stream of any organism” acquired from her yearlong scholarship on “something that is of immediate value to the Filipino people.”
While at the workshop, both scientists got to talking about the lethargic coffee industry back home, which was once the world’s fourth largest source of coffee beans, exporting $100 million a year.
Realizing that comprehensive information on local coffee growing was anecdotal and mostly unavailable to the public, they decided to collaborate and establish the country’s first coffee museum, which opened in June last year.
Housed at the NCRDEC office amid sprawling coffee nurseries in Cavite State University in the town of Indang, the Coffee Museum showcases an archive of all the varieties and cultivars grown in the country, with all the preserved leaves carefully catalogued in a chest of drawers.
In another shelf are jars containing actual coffee beans of the four main species—Arabica, Robusta (the raw material for instant coffee), Excelsa and Liberica (locally known as Barako)—harvested from various parts of the country, such as Benguet, Antique and traditional coffee-producing provinces like Batangas and Cavite.
An array of local coffee brands are also on display while in another room are maps, coffee cupping charts and processing machines. Guests can get their quick caffeine fix at the lobby, where freshly brewed Barako coffee is served.
“This is a one-stop information shop for people who want to learn about the different coffee varieties, where they are grown, what they are for, where they can get training, funding or seedlings,” said Lagman as she toured the Inquirer recently around the museum.
She also noted that documenting and compiling coffee varieties grown in the country would help in the branding and marketing of local coffee products amid the increasing popularity of special brews and exotic blends.
“Coffee is like wine. The quality of a cup of coffee is on the beans, the variety and the roasting. So if you know [what you are growing], you can actually package and market it, say ‘I’m producing Arabica-Robusta hybrid,’” Lagman said.
Branding would also give added value to local coffee products and inspire “connoisseurness” among coffee drinkers. But not many local growers or producers were into branding just yet but the potential was there, she pointed out.
Studies show that Filipinos are big coffee drinkers, guzzling about 100 million kilos a year or about 222 cups per person annually.
But the local industry produces only 25 percent of this and a measly .012 percent of the world’s coffee supply. Currently, the country imports about 60,000 metric tons of coffee to meet the demand.
The Philippines was one of the largest sources of coffee in the 19th century or nearly two centuries after Spanish friars introduced the first coffee tree in Lipa City. Coffee growing expanded later to other parts of Batangas and Cavite.
The thriving coffee production in the country slowed down in 1890 when vast plantations were plagued with coffee rust, a fungus that devours leaves of coffee trees, preventing them from flowering or producing coffee beans.
To draw more farmers and investors into coffee production, Lagman and her graduate students, in partnership with the Center for Conservation Innovations, developed a “coffee map” using the species diversity model (usually for ecology and conservation) to identify suitable areas in the country to plant coffee varieties.
To complete the map, the group also traveled to various parts of the country, especially to established coffee-producing areas to see the farm themselves and generate geolocation information.
“This geographic information system addresses the problem of farmers deciding on what variety is best suited for their area,” Lagman said.
The map also pinpointed potential plantation sites in offbeat areas or in places where no one thought a particular coffee variety could thrive.
For instance, while Liberica is traditionally produced in Batangas and Cavite, the map also indicated that this coffee variety could thrive in certain parts of Panay Island and Negros, Lagman said.
“People usually just go to places where a particular coffee variety is planted traditionally. [With the help of the map], they can grow two or more kinds of coffee [in one area] or go to where it’s not traditionally grown,” she said.
For the most laborious leg of the project, Lagman developed the genomes for 14 local Robusta varieties in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Flowers and Dr. Michael Purugganan of New York University. She likened the task to “completing 14 sets of a 1,000-piece puzzle.”
“What we had generated right now are more than 3,000 markers, which we will be choosing from,” she said.
Making the genetic tags accessible to everybody will open new possibilities for breeding and improving the country’s coffee selection, she added.
Lagman said these markers will also help in the certification of coffee products in the country, which will come in handy once the Asean integration has been fully implemented.
The yearlong endeavor also had a surprising yield: Trees from the oldest coffee farms in Cavite, Batangas and Kalinga were showing strange genomic patterns—distinct from those Robusta varieties developed by an international food giant that dominate most coffee plantations in the country.
“We have these trees that are kind of strange and if the farmers decide they want to wipe out their farms and choose something else to put in there, this nameless variety will disappear,” Lagman said.
The scientist surmised that these trees with a different genetic signature could be remnants of the ancient coffee trees brought by the Spaniards in the 1700s that survived the coffee rust.
“We don’t know yet if they have an advantage. [They may not really produce better and faster] but on the other hand, what can be detrimental now can be advantageous in the future,” she said.
“It’s like putting in a gene bank and putting it as a resource for eventualities that we don’t know and these things might have something that we don’t appreciate right now so we don’t want them to disappear,” she said.
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