A new study published in the journal Agronomy has found that vernacular names given to cultivated coffee plants in Yemen are not necessarily reflective of the plants’ genetic backgrounds.
Funding parties behind the research warn that such a disconnect might ultimately harm the international reputation of Yemeni coffees and put farmers at risk of making poor decisions regarding future cultivation.
However, the naming of coffee types — whether by geographic region or assumed plant type — remains a controversial subject in the Yemeni coffee sector, where coffee is a matter of deep cultural heritage and tradition. It also carries potential market implications, as coffees bearing the names of certain varieties may find more demand.
It must be noted that the new study was founded by the Lavazza Foundation and the Qima Foundation, two nonprofit entities affiliated with private companies engaged in the Yemeni coffee sector.
The research is part of a broader multi-year development program being led by the two organizations. The paper was published last month in Agronomy, one of hundreds of titles maintained by the open-access publishing platform MDPI. The research was led by plant scientist Christophe Montagnon of the French firm RD2 Vision.
The study examined 148 coffee farms throughout all of Yemen’s main coffee-growing regions, where coffee trees are often identified by vernacular names such as Udaini, Tufahi, Dawairi and others. What Montagnon found was that these names had little or no correlation to the genetic background of the coffees being identified, meaning they may not be accurate indicators of a given coffee’s “variety” or plant type.
The study identified three primary genetic “groups” of coffee cultivated in Yemen: those derived from SL34; those derived from Bourbon/Typica; and those derived from “New-Yemen.” The latter group was previously referred to as Yemenia after it was first identified by the same parties (RD2 and Qima) last year.
“Three hundred years ago, the few seeds that were smuggled out of Yemen gave the genetic basis of the C. arabica varieties that spread around the world. Since then, very little information on the genetics of coffee cultivated in Yemen has been available,” the paper states. “In this study, we show that vernacular names given to cultivated coffee have no correlation with the genetic background of the coffee trees. The same name is given to very different genetic backgrounds, and the same genetic background is associated with different names. Hence, coffee tree naming in Yemen does not reflect the inherent properties and merits of cultivated coffee trees.”
The study recommends that the Yemeni coffee sector should engage in variety trials — i.e., the trials of different coffee plant types in farmer plots for the purposes of selective breeding.
“If coffee farmers are relying on local names for their planting decisions, they are at significant risk of making planting decisions that do not fulfill their needs — with potentially serious long term financial implications for farm performance and household livelihoods,” Montagnon said in an announcement of the publication.
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Nick Brown is the editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine.