Are You Drinking GMO Coffee?

Genetically Modified (GM) food is a hot topic today. Proponents laud GM foods as a way to combat food shortage, drought and plant diseases. Anti-GM groups attack GM foods as frankenfood (as in Frankenstein*). They argue that you cannot mess with Mother Nature and that changing the DNA of plants can cause human disease and even death. Both sides are polarized. There is very little rational discussion about the pros and cons of GM food. There are a lot of one sided reports that support GM food e.g. and a lot of one-sided reports that condemn GM food e.g.

Pro-GM forces are lead by the large agricultural companies, like Monsanto, who see huge potential profits in selling GM modified seeds and partnered chemicals. These companies have focused their GM efforts on highly profitable modifications. At the same time, less well known and less financed university biologists are looking for GM solutions to agricultural problems such as pandemic plant diseases, pests, drought, climate change, labor costs and food shortages.

Anti-GM forces are led by advocacy groups such as the Organic Consumers Association, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace. They argue that there are unanswered questions regarding the long-term impact on human health from food derived from GM. They believe there should be a moratorium on GM food, or at least, that all GM food contain a warning label. Anti-GM forces also include underground eco-terrorists who destroy GM crops.

Genetic mutation of plants is not a new concept. GM foods were first introduced in the 1960’s. In the 1990s, Hawaiian papaya production was reduced to 50% within six years by the ring spot virus. A plant pathologist from the University of Hawaii genetically engineered a virus-resistant variety, the Rainbow Papaya. The Rainbow Papaya has become the primary variety grown in Hawaii. A large portion of all animal foods are GM, as well as most staples such as beet sugar, corn, wheat and rice. One anti-GM organization estimates that 75% of all processed foods in U.S. supermarkets contain GM products.

There have been attempts since the 1960’s to modify the DNA of coffee trees. Nestle has patents on coffee trees that produce more soluble coffee (as in Nescafe). The University of Hawaii has developed a coffee tree that does not ripen until sprayed with ethylene. This causes all of the coffee beans to ripen at the same time.

Coffee is a remarkably sensitive plant, too hot, too cold, too much water, not enough water, too high, or too low and the trees are dead. Because it is a mono-crop it is also sensitive to a number of diseases and pests. Currently, the coffee orchards in Central and South America are under attack from a fungal rust that kills the trees. Some farmers have lost their entire farms. Bugs like the Coffee Berry Borer beetle and the Coffee Leaf Miner are pandemic and cost millions in damage to coffee crops. There is a long history of nations that have invested in coffee only to be driven out of the business through diseases or pests. Genetically modifying coffee could enlarge its growing area, reduce fertilizer costs, reduce water usage and improve its flavor characteristics. Since coffee beans are one of the top commodities traded on the world market, there are large financial rewards for companies that can make faster, cheaper, better coffee beans.

Recently, a group of international scientists sequenced the genome of Robusta coffee. Sequencing the genome makes it easier for scientists to make DNA changes. Robusta is a cheap, high acid coffee grown at low altitudes. The next step will be to modify the DNA of Robusta to make changes such as caffeine free, low acid, sweeter, disease resistant and/or more productive. If other GM products are an indicator, scientists will probably succeed in accomplishing one or more of these changes.

There is a also a strong anti GM coffee movement. In 2005, eco-gorillas destroyed efforts to grow pest-resistant GM coffee in French Guiana, hacking down all of the prototype transgenic trees. In 2008, Kona coffee farmers in Hawaii successfully lobbied to ban the cultivation of GM coffee crops, saying the presence of frankenbeans would damage their reputation and their ability to charge a premium price.

The first GM coffees will be commercial coffee from large companies that can support the initial investment. Large commercial producers are going to be receptive to trees that are more productive, low in caffeine and/or can resist drought, frost and disease. Nestle has announced that it as developed a more productive coffee tree and that it is going to distribute 220 million GM coffee trees to coffee farmers throughout the world.

In time, trees will be developed for the specialty coffee market, Currently there are specialty coffee beans selling for up to $150 per pound. The beans have extraordinary flavor but only limited production. Modifying coffee DNA to create large orchards of coffee trees with extraordinary flavor will occur.

One problem is the Law of Unintended Consequences – for every action, in addition to the intended result there are always unexpected detriments. One example, is decaffeinated trees. Caffeine is a natural bug repellent that protects the coffee tree. Take away the caffeine and farmers will have to spray chemicals on the tree to stop bugs from eating the leaves and beans. Another is the modification of coffee DNA so that all of the beans ripen at the same time. The normal coffee picking season is 6 months long. If all of the beans ripen at the same time then the beans can be quickly strip picked by hand or machine picked. However, that will put thousands of third world coffee pickers out of work without any real economic alternatives. Consumers get cheaper coffee at the expense of third world workers going hungry. Who knows what other consequences are lurking down the road? Standby the future is coming.

If you are drinking Hula Daddy coffee you are not drinking GM coffee. Hula Daddy Kona Coffee does not own or sell any GM coffee and has no plans to do so.

* Just to keep the record straight, Frankenstein was the doctor not the monster.

Karen Jue Paterson is the owner of Hula Daddy Kona Coffee, a 33 acre coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii. She is a member of the Hawaii Coffee Association, the Kona Coffee Council, the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, the Holualoa Village Association and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. She is also the author of a number of articles on Kona Coffee including: Kona Coffee Farmers at a Crossroad ;How Typica is Your Kona Coffee? ; Are Roasters Eroding the Kona Coffee Brand?; Coffee Cupping Competitions – Real or Random Chance? ; Seven Easy Steps to Become a Gourmet Coffee Taster ; How to Brew Coffee Using a Pour Over Filter; Before You Buy an Automatic Single Serve Coffee Brewer; Siphon Coffee Brewers Suck!; Sweet Coffee;What Color is Your Coffee Roast? You can email her at #huladaddy #konacoffee

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