October 13, 2017

Everyone’s favorite jolt of caffeine—coffee—has a surprisingly precarious existence. Climate change, disease and international conflict continue to threaten its global production, even as demand for coffee increases. Therefore, Texas A&M’s nascent Center for Coffee Research and Education (CCRE) already has assumed an important leadership role in protecting and improving this valuable crop and enhancing the quality of life for farmers and other industry stakeholders.

CCRE was established in September 2016 as part of the world-renowned Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M. “Coffee is one of the most important commodities produced in developing countries around the world,” said Dr. Elsa Murano, the institute’s director. “It is considered a ‘cash crop’ because it is sought after and traded around the world, remaining fairly impervious to inflation and other economic fluctuations. Therefore, it is an excellent platform to help elevate farmers and their families in the poorest countries out of poverty and hunger, providing them the livelihood to support themselves and their families, not only in the sense of being able to buy food, but also to send their children to school and be able to afford health care."

In its infancy, the CCRE is already making a global impact on the coffee industry and playing a part in stimulating the United States’ economy. To sustain its efforts in perpetuity, the center seeks endowed funding that can support its research and mission.

A Jolt to the U.S. Economy

According to the National Coffee Association USA, the coffee industry’s national economic impact was $225.2 billion in 2015. Coffee-related economic activity during that year represented slightly more than 1.5 percent of the total U.S. gross domestic product, and the industry contributed a total of $28 billion in taxes to the economy.

The coffee industry is also responsible for employing approximately 100 million people internationally, including 1.7 million in the United States. These jobs include farmers, importers, transporters, roasters, packagers, merchants and producers of coffee machines, disposable products and add-ons (milk, creamers, sweeteners and flavorings).

Despite the potential for creating financial security, the world’s coffee farmers often face daunting challenges. The CCRE got its start at Texas A&M when university researchers helped address two international coffee challenges.

Dr. Leonardo Lombardini's leadership of the Center for Coffee Research and Education has been the driving force behind the organization as it looks to grow and thrive in the years to come.

Take Rwanda for instance, which was a minor coffee producer when the nation plunged into genocide in 1994. Several years later, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) created a project to revitalize Rwanda’s struggling economy and the Borlaug Institute joined as a key participant. “This effort wasn’t supposed to be a coffee project at first; instead, it was supposed to focus on agriculture and capacity-building,” said Dr. Leonardo Lombardini, CCRE’s director. “Rwanda is very close to Ethiopia, where coffee is originally from. Obviously, the environmental and climatic conditions are very similar.”

However, Rwandan farmers weren’t producing the type of specialized coffee that would attract international buyers. “After they realized that coffee had the potential to become one of the nation’s leading agricultural exports, they started focusing on growing this crop,” Lombardini said.

The Rwanda project laid the foundation for the center’s future work in coffee, as it allowed Texas A&M researchers to further develop their expertise and set up an international network of coffee industry representatives.

In 2012, an outbreak of coffee leaf rust disease devastated coffee crops in several Central American, South American and Caribbean countries, including Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Brazil, Peru, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Farmers who relied on their coffee crops as their primary source of income were forced to leave their barren fields and migrate with their families to other countries.

To stem the crisis, Borlaug Institute researchers began working with  World Coffee Research, a nonprofit organization which was founded at Texas A&M with the support of the private sector to grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihood of the families who produce it. In 2014, the Borlaug Institute and World Coffee Research partnered to manage a  large grant from USAID to focus specifically on coffee leaf rust. These efforts, which will continue through 2018, include learning how to treat the disease, developing disease-resistant varieties of coffee plants and providing informational materials for farmers.

Percolating with Ideas

Texas A&M researchers’ efforts on these two crises, which spanned a 17-year period, served as the catalyst for CCRE’s creation. The center is the newest member of a small scientific community studying coffee internationally. While established research efforts are being undertaken by universities in Brazil, Colombia, India and France, less than a handful of programs exist in the United States.

Lombardini, an Italian who grew up with espresso and worked at one point as a barista, is well-suited to lead the young center. “Dr. Lombardini brings a wealth of experience in the horticulture sciences as well as excellent relationships with the coffee industry, which is the ultimate client that serves as the market to which coffee farmers sell their crops,” Murano said. “As a member of the faculty, he is also an excellent educator and has established opportunities for our students to learn about coffee production, both in the classroom and during study abroad opportunities in places like Guatemala, where we lead projects through the center.”

CCRE’s first year of existence focused on creating a systemic research agenda. Its research efforts will include identifying cultural practices that affect the crop’s quality, increasing coffee’s sensory properties, analyzing its nutritional content and studying the environmental impact of coffee production’s byproducts. “We want to advance the science so that we can understand what happens in the farmer’s field as well as the consumer’s experience with a cup of coffee,” Lombardini said.  

One critical area of investigation is climate change. For instance, one of the industry’s most important crops, the Arabica bean, grows best at an elevation of 6,000 feet where temperatures are between 70 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. However, climate change is increasing temperatures at higher altitudes, so farmers must create new fields higher in the mountains to grow Arabica beans. To address this environmental issue, CCRE’s researchers are developing coffee varieties that are heat and drought tolerant.

A Latte Energy 

CCRE’s staff also plans to create training and certification programs to tap into the expensive Texas coffee market. The list of future classes includes programs that are similar in scope to the Department of Animal Science’s popular Camp Brisket and Barbecue Summer Camp.

However, making these dreams a reality requires funding. Lombardini’s priority is establishing the center’s lab, which will allow CCRE to become certified and then begin offering certification programs to interested stakeholders. Endowed funding for the center beginning at $25,000 can also support the research of affiliated faculty members or stipends for graduate student researchers. Additionally, your gift will advance the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Lead by Example campaign goal of supporting initiatives that feed the world.

Ultimately, CCRE’s staff hopes the center’s work will increase the quality of farmers’ lives as well as the crop they produce. “The center, as a part of the Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, is committed to fulfilling the mission of carrying forward the legacy of Dr. Borlaug, who aimed to utilize agriculture science to improve lives around the world,” Murano said. “The center doesn’t give farmers a handout, but rather helps to create opportunities for them to become self-reliant agricultural entrepreneurs. This is at the heart of one of our most cherished values as Aggies: selfless service. We are called to use our talents and abilities to help others, while serving as examples for our students to do the same.”

  • The Perfect Blend

    With the support of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture and the leadership of Dr. Leo Lombardini, students can accomplish a dual purpose: coffee research and community education on a global scale.

  • Innovation Brewing

    The CCRE tackles coffee challenges by developing disease, heat and drought-resistant varieties of coffee plants through their research and providing informational materials for farmers.

  • Someone's Bean Busy

    Although in its infancy, the CCRE is off to a quick start in changing the world through coffee research and education by creating agricultural coffee entrepreneurs.

  • Not Your Typical Daily Grind

    Coffee is a global commodity in a billion-dollar industry. Students and faculty alike have assumed an important leadership role in protecting and improving this valuable crop and enhancing the quality of life for farmers and other industry stakeholders.