GMO Coffee in Laboratories But No Sell-By Date Yet
Author: Eleanor Wason
GMO coffee may be under the microscope but it is unlikely to reach consumers' cups soon, according to a seminar held by the International Coffee Organisation in London on Tuesday.
"We won't be drinking a cup of GM coffee tomorrow. There is no way of assessing in what year it will come but definitely not in this decade," said Ezzedine Boutrif, head of the Food and Agriculture Organisation's Food Quality and Standards Service.
Top coffee producer Brazil is investing millions of dollars on research but is unlikely to get a genetically modified (GMO) coffee to market for 15 to 20 years because of various technical, legislative and commercial hurdles, said Luiz Gonzaga Vieira, a researcher at state agency Embrapa.
Field trials in French Guiana were ruined by unidentified saboteurs last August, setting back research into a disease-resistant coffee, according to Christophe Montagnon, coffee adviser for research institute CIRAD.
GMO crops such as corn and soya beans are widely grown in the US, Canada, China, Argentina, and Brazil but in the European Union they face fierce opposition from consumer and environmental groups.
No new approvals for live GMO plantings have been approved since 1998 when the bloc began a six-year ban on allowing imports of new GMOs.
Alongside the usual environmental and health issues concerning gene-altered organisms, GMO coffee provokes other, still more emotive arguments because of its importance for the economies of many poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
"The debate over GM remains one of the most controversial and fiercely contested in recent times and the most important battle ground is the developing world," the FAO's Boutrif said. "Coffee is a critical crop there and directly concerns the livelihood of 100 million people."
Producers have only recently emerged from a crisis caused by oversupply and a slump in prices to a 30-year low in 2001.
"The problems in coffee are the balance of supply and demand, low prices and quality. The main question is, could GM coffee solve them?" said Francois Meienberg from Swiss-based development campaigner, Berne Declaration.
COFFEE A LUXURY
Unlike the GMO crops that have so far been commercialised, coffee is not a staple food but a luxury.
"For products that we depend on for survival a GM solution is necessary...but coffee is sold because it appeals to the emotional part of the brain, if there is no pleasure there is no consumption," said Dr Ernesto Illy, Chairman of Italian coffee roaster Illycafe.
He said the industry should focus on traditional breeding rather than genetic engineering and complained that GMO research up until now has focused on increasing production rather than improving quality.
Coffee is also a perennial crop with trees living as long as 30 years, unlike the annual crops produced so far through GMO science.
"A farmer can't just plant it then remove it after a year if it doesn't work...perennial trees will be the last (crops) to be commercialised," said Dr Peter Baker, Coffee Projects Coordinator at the UK's CABI Bioscience.
He said the first breakthrough was likely to come from Brazil, which grows over a third of the world's coffee and where frosts and droughts have in the past devastated crops.
However, Brazil's Vieira said that given the expense of GM0 research, a large biotech company rather than a single country may be better placed to produce the first GMO brew.
Smaller producers, particularly in Africa, are likely to be marginalised by the technology, the ICO's Exective Director Nestor Osorio said.
He said the ICO would support members in developing research initiatives but that each country would have to take its own decision on the GMO debate.