Part of a breeding programme to come up with low-caffeine strains, the discovery of the decaffeinated version of Coffea arabica, the most cultivated and consumed coffee in the world, at the State University of Campinas in Brazil could lead to cheap alternatives to artificially decaffeinated coffee on the market today.
Decaffeinated coffee accounts for about 10 per cent of the world coffee market, according to The National Coffee Association of USA. Industrial methods today to decaffeinate coffee use organic solvents and carbon dioxide to remove the caffeine from the beans, but in the process tend to deplete necessary flavour compounds.
Reporting in this week's issue of Nature, Paulo Mazzafera, who co-discovered the plants, notes that "this is the first time anyone has found a decaffeinated version of Coffea arabica." While wild caffeine-free coffee plants have been found before in Madagascar they can not produce beans suitable for coffee production.
According to the Nature report Mazzafera hopes his discovery will help those who find it physically difficult to tolerate caffeine. The chemical can raise blood pressure, trigger palpitations and disrupt sleep.
But the researchers do not yet know how their plants could compete in the commercial domain because they have not been able to taste any coffee made from the plants as these will take several years to mature.
As scientists continue efforts to produce decaffeinate plants through biotechnology, the natural option could hold a strong appeal with consumers still wary of GM foodstuffs. But selective breeding like this, writes Nature can take ten years or more, giving competitors a chance to edge in on the market, a genetically modified low-caffeine coffee plant is just a few years from maturity.
Research published last year by researchers in Japan found genetically modified coffee seedlings could produce up to 70 per cent less caffeine.
Shinjiro Ogita and colleagues at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in Japan used a tool called RNA interference to genetically engineer the one-year-old plants."At present, coffee is decaffeinated industrially, but the process is expensive and the flavour of the product is poor - problems that could potentially be overcome by the genetic engineering of coffee plants," the researchers wrote in a June 2003 issue of the Nature.
A further issue is the 'value-added' potential of the natural crops. According to the intergovernmental, UN-backed International Coffee Organisation, although the coffee business is booming in consuming developed countries, current rock bottom prices are causing immense hardship to countries where coffee is a key economic activity, as well as to the farmers who produce it.
In the early 1990s earnings by coffee producing countries reached $10-12 billion and the value of retail sales of coffee, largely in industrialised countries, about $30 billion. Now the value of retail sales exceeds $70 billion but coffee producing countries only receive US$5.5 billion.
Prices on world markets, which averaged around 120 US cents/lb in the 1980s, are now around 50 cents, the lowest in real terms for 100 years.
Although consumers could be expected to benefit from low prices this is not the case in coffee. Firstly, the amount accruing to the farmer from the retail sales price of a cup of coffee in a coffee shop is probably less than 2 per cent and secondly, excessively low prices lead to lower quality, writes the ICO.
Without regulating the market itself, an International Coffee Agreement enforced in October 2001 identified a number of ways to ease the coffee crisis. Quality improvement and diversification of farmer's crops were high on the list. The Brazilian discovery could offer just such opportunity.