A version of this article originally appeared on Daily Coffee News here on March 8th 2017. This article was co-authored by Colleen King & Rosi Quiñones

Part I : GMOs

In part one of this series, we explore the Non-GMO certification movement, and discuss its relevance to the specialty coffee industry. We begin with this polarizing subject due to its recent rise in popularity. Non-GMO labeling is the fastest growing certification, outpacing organic three years in a row. Labeling efforts are always driven by consumer demands. Here at Royal, we see this trend, and believe researching and sharing information is the most important step to transparency in our decision making.

The first thing we learned when researching for this piece, was that it is difficult to uncover solid, unbiased information about GMOs. When consumers see a coffee on a shelf labeled Non-GMO, it implies that other coffees may be genetically modified. In our 39 years of sourcing coffee around the globe, we have never encountered a genetically modified coffee plant. This article explores the research, investment, risks and potential for biotechnology in the specialty coffee industry, and how it could affect roasters.

Does GMO coffee exist?

According to the National Coffee Association of USA (NCA), there is no evidence of GMO coffee cultivated for commercial use. However, there have been efforts to develop and patent genetically modified plants.

In 1999, the University of Hawaii was granted a U.S. patent on coffee genetically altered to stop growing just short of maturity. A chemical spray was then used to ensure the berries fully ripen at the same, resulting in uniform picking.

In 2006, The Wall Street Journal announced that Nestle was granted a patent for genetically modified seeds by the European Patent Office. The report refers to a “genetically modified coffee plant with a blocked enzyme, designed to improve the solubility of the coffee powder.” The patent covers: the technical process, genetically modified plants, and the use of coffee beans for the manufacture of soluble coffee.

In 2008, nine years after the ripening patent was released, Kona coffee farmers in Hawaii successfully lobbied to ban the cultivation of certain GMO crops. They argued the presence of “frankenbeans” would damage their reputation and ability to charge a premium.

In 2012, a flurry of reports warned that GMO coffee could be around the corner after scientists sequenced the coffee genome for the first time. These scientists analyzed robusta genes and compared them to the caffeine content in chocolate. This further demonstrated that the objectives of research has been consistently targeting solubility, caffeine content, yield enhancement, and herbicide tolerance, to aid in efficiency and long term cost saving developments.

Recently, University of California, Davis, released the first public genome sequence of Coffea Arabica Geisha varietal. This research is of high importance for the specialty coffee industry, as it could provide a foundation for preserving diversity and breeding.

However, this recent development should not necessarily be associated with genetic engineering. Alternatively, this technology can be used to advance other breeding techniques, such as molecular markers, which increase the efficiency of classifying the materials and selecting the candidates for parental crosses with desirable traits.

With these efforts in mind, it would seem that there is no risk for GMO coffee, as there is no recorded commercially available crop. According the Non-GMO Project, coffee is considered low risk. In fact, the risk is significantly higher for other common products in the cafes like honey, soy, and milk sourced from cows fed GMO grain.

Arguments for and against

Ironically, the overarching arguments both for and against the investment in the genetic modification of coffee address farmers and climate. Coffee and cocoa are already being impacted by the effects of climate change. We have recently received reports from concerned farmers noticing new species of birds migrating, early flowering and unseasonal weather patterns. This news, reported by multi generation family farmers, raise serious concerns about the increasing challenges of farming on a warmer planet.

Advocates tout the potential of drought resistant, rust resistant, frost resistant coffee plants that could provide stability for farmers. Supporters also point to the largest market growth of GM seeds, which are located in the global south on farms comprised of less than 10 hectares. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which takes an inter sectional approach to raising standards of living in impoverished communities, have funded research labs to for GMO agriculture. Some communities, including Papaya growers in Hawaii, claim biotechnology saved their industry by creating seeds resistant to previously debilitating effects of the ringspot virus.

The most controversial claims by supporters focuses on increased yields and reduction in pesticide use. Some have claimed that biotechnology saves the equivalent of 521,000 pounds of pesticides each year, and helps cut herbicide runoff by 70 percent. Critics have pushed back, noting that GMOs in the United States and Canada have not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.

Proponents have expressed concern about contamination, and the unintended consequences of changing an isolated component of an ecosystem. In addition, opponents express concern for less control for farmers, as the research and development is costly, and companies will likely seek to recuperate the returns from investment by selling the patented genetically engineered seeds and plants. They claim that this technology would likely prohibit farmers from owning their own plants.

In the United States, many large scale farmers do not own their seeds or livestock, but instead lease them and provide labor. This model could be implemented in the coffee industry as well. This would likely involve successfully germinated GM seedlings and the distribution of young trees. This raises concerns for proponents directly related to contamination. The true issue of contamination is that once a gene has escaped, there is no way to recall it.  While some of the Papaya farmers cited earlier argue that GM saved the papaya industry in Hawaii, other farmers lost their organic certification due to contamination of their crops.

During our research, we came across an apple at the center of controversy. It was created with a relatively new form of genetic engineering called RNA interference or gene silencing. This apple is engineered not to brown or show age after it is sliced. The reasons for this modification is not climate or yield, but industry and convenience focused.

Concerns were immediately raised by the Center for Food and Safety. When whole apples are sliced, there is an increased risk of exposure to pathogens. Because browning is a sign that apples are no longer fresh, “masking” this natural signal could lead people to consume contaminated apples. We must emphasize that changing the way fruits, like apples or coffee cherries, react to their environments have unknown climate and health ramifications.

Proponents acknowledge the impacts of climate change, have largely said they are against GM cultivation in vulnerable ecosystems until a scientific consensus has been reached. Despite controversy, 2016 is considered the year that a scientific consensus regarding health effects was reached. The FDA issued a report stating that there is no substantial evidence that GM foods are less safe than conventionally grown foods. The Alliance for Science at Cornell University echoed the FDA with an article titled “GMO Safety Debate Is Over.” While there is a federal consensus, some of the scientific and food advocate community is still divided, and have called for more epidemiological, environmental impact, and long-term human studies.

Is it likely to enter the specialty market?

As we know, specialty coffee is driven by flavor – a significantly more difficult trait to alter through genetic modification. The flavor of specialty coffee is impacted by soil, elevation, terroir, processing, drying, transportation, storage, and roasting.

We found one instance of the ability to create GM traits for the effects of flavor. Recently,  Harry J. Klee, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, published a study on flavor chemicals that are deficient in modern varieties of tomatoes. Interestingly, the company isolated genes to locate genes that produce these chemicals, then used traditional breeding techniques to get their results. While tomatoes are less complex than the coffea arabica, it is interesting to note that it has been executed with the assistance of biotechnology without genetically modifying the product itself.

The World Coffee Research (WCR), a nonprofit dedicated to improving the livelihood of coffee farmers, is also utilizing genetic research, and using that knowledge to breed coffee plants. In a conversation with Hanna Neuschwander, Communication Director at WCR, she explained that breeders of tomatoes, onion, rice and other crops – but not coffee- have seen their worlds transformed by the recent advent of molecular breeding. She also shared that WCR is “incorporating molecular approaches to their breeding program with a with a particular focus on looking for genes and DNA markers involved in coffee leaf rust resistance, vigor and yield, male sterility, and cup quality.”

In 2014, the Scientific American described this approach

These modern plant breeders are not genetic engineers. Rather, they sequence the genomes of many different kinds of plants to build databases that link various versions of genes—known as alleles—to distinct traits. Then, they peek inside juvenile plants to examine the alleles that are already there before choosing which ones to grow in the field and how best to mate one plant with another… saving them a great deal of time and labor. In this way, breeding becomes far more efficient.

Is there a Non-GMO certification? What should I do if I have a label driven customer base?

Yes! In order to become Non-GMO certified, a technical administrator would evaluate the products for compliance with the Non-GMO Project’s standard.  As cited earlier, green coffee is considered a low risk crop. As such, testing of low risk ingredients is not required. According to our research, the technical administrators that provide service for Non-GMO verification do not require a lab test. Therefore, the Non-GMO certification can be purchased by green coffee importers and roasters alike without scientific testing.

At this time, Royal has decided not to become a Non-GMO certified company. If a genetically engineered coffee becomes available on the market place, we will reevaluate our standing. Our recommendation for a certification and labeling advocate customer base is to purchase any certified coffee.

Organic, Bird Friendly, Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade certification standards prohibit the use of GMOs. If the coffee is purchased with any of these certifications, it is valid to print on the bag or on the company’s website: This coffee is Non-GMO. The Organic standard, in particular, inspects for seed and plant sources, performs lab tests for high risks crops and is regulated by the USDA. We also encourage roasters to acknowledge that there are no GMO coffees available on the market. A simple statement could read: There are no GMO coffees commercially available. Should they become available, we are committed to providing traceable, certified coffees that are free of genetic modification.

Availability of coffees that holds any of these four certifications can be found on our webpage by applying the certification filter here.