The recent mapping of the coffee genome by Brazil should open numerous possibilities for the Brazilian coffee industry. Genetic knowledge can lead to genetic improvements that result in greater production at a lower cost, resistance to disease and drought.
Genome mapping will also allow different varieties and aromas, as well as a more nutritional product with a higher aggregate value for both domestic and foreign markets.
Brazil is the world’s biggest producer and exporter of coffee. It produces one third of all the coffee in the world and exports an annual average of 22 million sacks.
Coffee cropland occupies a total of 2.7 million hectares in two thousand municipalities scattered over 16 states.
Because Brazil produces coffee in so many different parts of the country, there is a large variety in types of Brazilian coffee – something for every taste and pocketbook. It is estimated that there are 40 different coffee brands in Brazil.
The sector employees 6 million people and has total annual revenue of around US$ 4 billion, of which half is from exports. Coffee is only 2% of total Brazilian exports, however.
Coffee has been grown in Brazil since colonial times. Recently Brazil has doubled the productivity of its coffee croplands and gone up market by cultivating more specialty types, such as arabic and robust, which are the most popular among consumers.
There is a good reason for that: while coffee consumption worldwide has been rising annually at around 1.5%, the demand for special and organic coffees has been rising 15% a year.
Just last month, Brazilian scientists concluded the first large-scale sequencing of the coffee plant genome and assembled the world’s largest data bank on the bean.
There are 200 thousand DNA sequences. Sequencing made it possible to identify over 30 thousand genes responsible for various of the plant’s growth and development mechanisms (leaves, roots, fruit, flowers, and branches).
The official announcement of the sequencing was made on August 10 by the Minister of Agriculture, Roberto Rodrigues. He also signed a technical cooperation contract to regulate access to and use of the information, which will be kept by the Agronomic and Environmental Genomes Network of the São Paulo Research Assistance Foundation (Fapesp) and the Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Center (Cenargen) of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Company (Embrapa), in Brasília.
With the success of the Coffee Genome Project, initiated in February, 2002, Brazil becomes the leader in genetic research on the beverage, and Brazilian scientists have acquired greater knowledge of the plant’s genome.
Brazil is one of the few countries in the world to master the technology of sequencing complete genomes. The country recently concluding sequencing the genetic codes of Xylella, Xantohmonas, and sugar cane.
The data generated by the Genome Project, says Minister Rodrigues, will benefit the entire coffee productive chain, especially small growers, by making technological inclusion available to family farming.
Mastery of the genetic code will make it possible to develop more productive varieties, capable of tolerating climatic variations (such as drought and frost) and resisting the attacks of pests and diseases currently controlled through the use of agricultural pesticides.
According to Rodrigues, sequencing of the genome unveils an “extraordinary horizon” for the competitiveness of coffee-growing in Brazil, diminishing production costs and upgrading the quality of the product.
“The productivity and the quality of our coffee will be enhanced by the genetic improvement of the plants.”
The Minister pointed out that, with the sequencing, the country assumes the position of front-runner in the race to patent coffee genes and advances at least two decades in terms of progress in research and improvements in cultivation.
Consumers will also obtain benefits. The data generated by the project will accelerate the development of other, higher quality plants, with more aroma and flavor and superior nutritional characteristics (levels of caffeine, vitamins, and minerals).
“This represents a Brazilian vanguard in scientific terms,” the Minister affirmed, emphasizing that, with the genome, Brazil, which is already the world’s biggest producer and exporter and second-biggest consumer of coffee, will increase its competitiveness in the sector even more.
The estimate for the 2004/2005 coffee crop is 38,264 million sacks, 32.8% more than the previous harvest of 28,820 million sacks.
However, according to the Secretary of Production and Commercialization, Linneu Costa Lima, it is possible that the crop will be smaller than the Ministry of Agriculture’s prediction, since the country’s production was damaged by the rains in May and June of this year and is liable to be adversely affected by further rainfall in September.
Costa Lima considers it possible that the market will react by raising coffee prices. The average export price per sack, which was US$ 46 in 2002, rose to US$ 56 last year and US$ 74 this year.
“The market is reacting. The Brazilian crop is late and may yield less and of poorer quality. If the supply is smaller, the price will have to adjust,” Costa Lima affirms.
A survey conducted by the National Supply Company (Conab) demonstrates that there is an equilibrium between supply and demand. Growers are expected to have the crop ready by September 15 and be prepared for the possibility of additional rainfall.
So far, according to the Conab, only a small portion of the crop has been harvested, and only 33% has been processed for export. The months of May and June are regarded as the best time to harvest.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the Brazilian government is trying to make sufficient funds available for commercialization, so that growers need not make hasty sales to cover harvesting expenses.
The government has already allocated US$ 165 million (500 million reais) to commercialization, but these resources can only be used when the coffee is ready for export.
Another US$ 99 million (300 million reais) will be made available to growers as a result of a decision by the National Monetary Council (CMN).
Minas Gerais is the principal coffee-growing state in Brazil, with 18.6 million sacks. Second place belongs to Espírito Santo, with 6.4 million sacks. São Paulo is third, with 5 million sacks.
In the assessment of the Ministry of Agriculture, the market has shown signs of recovery. 13.9 million sacks were exported between January and July of this year, compared with 14.2 million sacks during the same period last year.
Although this year’s export volume was less, revenues were up US$ 232 million. (US$ 1.29 billion in 2004 versus US$ 798 billion in 2003).