Not my cup of coffee: Farmers’ preferences for coffee variety traits — Lessons for crop breeding in the age of climate change

Abrha Megos Meressa, School of Economics and Business, Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Stale Navrud, School of Economics and Business, Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Coffee is grown by 20–25 million families in more than 80 tropical and subtropical countries (Bacon, 2005; Vega et al., 2003). Two main coffee species are grown; Arabica coffee (coffea arabica) and Robusta coffee (coffea canephora), with the former accounting for more than half of the world coffee production. Meeting the growing demand for coffee while safeguarding the genetic biodiversity of coffee is, however, a great challenge for policy makers. The advent of biotechnology and conservation of genetic resources hold promise to improve phenotypes of high economic importance and bring socially desirable outcomes. Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest coffee producing countries and known to harbor a wide range of coffee genetic diversity in a diverse array of coffee farming systems.

There are more than 5,000 varieties of Arabica coffee in the country (Labouisse et al., 2008, Tsegaye et al., 2014), and they can still be found growing wild or semi-wild in the under-growth of tropical highland forests. Ethiopian foreign exchange earnings largely depend on coffee export. There are four main coffee farming practices in Ethiopia: i) forest coffee, accounting for 8–10 % of the production, ii) semi-forest coffee (30–35 %), iii) garden coffee (50–57 %) and iv) plantations (5 %)(Kufa, 2012). Thus, 95 % of the total coffee produced can be attributed to smallholder farmers.The productivity of forest coffee and semi-forest coffee farming is about 200–500 Kg per hectare, which is lower than the national average productivity (600 -700 Kg per hectare). The coffee species in the forests and farms vary in productivity per hectare, appearance and internal genetic structure (López-Gartner et al., 2009).

The vast genetic variability in Coffea arabica genotypes of Ethiopia provides opportunities for creating coffee varieties, through selection and hybridization, with good yield performance, distinct quality characters, and resistance to major diseases. The few common pests and coffee diseases include coffee berry disease (CBD)(Colletotrichum kahawae), coffee root-knot nematode (Meloidogyne spp.) and coffee rust (Muller et al., 2009; Dubale & Teketay, 2000). The threat of CBD remains prevalent in coffee growing regions despite research efforts and policy interventions encouraging planting of disease resistant coffee varieties and fungicide spraying. Pest and disease resistant cultivars yield economic benefits because they reduce yield losses and pesticide costs of coffee growers (Hein & Gatzweiler, 2006).Previous studies and policies on annual crops narrowly focus on evaluating the benefits of high yielding varieties, but farmers’ adoption of these improved varieties is low (e.g., Dalton, 2004; Shiferaw et al., 2014; Zeng et al., 2014).

In addition, evidence from multi-attribute crop studies in developing countries show that farmers exhibit higher preferences for drought tolerant than high yielding crops (Asrat et al., 2010; Kassie et al., 2017). However, these studies examine farmers’ preferences for crops such as teff (Eragrostis abyssinica) and maize. In contrast, coffee is arguably more robust to weather shocks than annual crops, but the practice of coffee farming is more challenging because of long-lasting effects of farming decision, less opportunities for inter-annual agronomic adjustments, as well as the ecological importance of preserving genetic diversity.Farmers focus on their private economic benefits, and select and cultivate coffee varieties based on the benefits they obtain and/or expect to obtain from a particular trait (Hein & Gatzweiler, 2006).

However, farmers’ emphasis on adoption of high yield coffee varieties could erode the genetic diversity of coffee in the forests and the semi-forest coffee farms. Fluctuating market price of coffee, coffee diseases, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and substitute cash crops like khat (Catha edulis) can also reduce the genetic diversity of coffee. In coping with the environmental stressors, farmers’ selection of coffee varieties to cultivate and maintain on their farm along with natural processes over generations of cultivation shapes the genetic structure of coffee (Baidu-Forson et al., 1997; Smale et al., 2001). Farmers’ interest in increasing yield per hectare, reducing yield loss or shortening the waiting period to start harvesting a normal yield might motivate their decisions to cultivate new varieties and maintain them in their fields. Climate change is threatening global coffee yields as changing temperatures and rain-fall patterns affect plant growth. The changing climate may also be leaving coffee plants more vulnerable to diseases. Thus, in the age of climate change it is important to conserve the genetic diversity in Arabica coffee in countries like Ethiopia, as this genetic pool is likely to improve the possibilities for adapting coffee growing to future climates and secure the livelihood of smallholder coffee farmers in developing countries (FAO 2015).

This paper aims at increasing our understanding of Ethiopian smallholder farmers’ preferences for Arabica coffee traits. This knowledge can be used to construct breeding programs for coffee varieties farmers are likely to adopt, and thus conserve in-situ. For example, if farmers have strong preferences for high yield traits, they are more likely to maintain such varieties in their farmed fields. However, the farmers would then be less likely to cultivate or maintain other coffee varieties with lower yields, but with drought tolerance and other traits that could critically affect the future ability of coffee to adapt to climate change. In order to preserve these traits, ex-situ conservation efforts would be needed to supplement on the farm (in situ) conservation. While previous studies of Ethiopian smallholder farmers have examined trait preferences for annual crops like teff and sorghum (Asrat et al., 2010), and found environmental adaptability and yield stability to be important, very little is known about the trait preferences of farmers for perennials like coffee.

This paper seeks to answer the following three research questions: 1) Which traits of Arabica coffee varieties do smallholder farmers prefer to cultivate? 2) Are there trait preference variations among the farmers? 3) Which sociodemographic factors explain the variations in farmers’ preferences for coffee traits?We employ a discrete choice experiment (DCE) to elicit farmers ́ preferences and willingness-to-pay (WTP) for improvements in the following traits of Arabica coffee: i) yield per hectare, ii) weather tolerance, iii) diseases resistance, and iv) the maturity peri-od. We also explore the preference heterogeneity among the smallholder farmers, and the sources of heterogeneity.

The latter is found to be important for designing targeted communication programs, differentiated product offerings, and for identifying market segments and market niches (Allenby & Rossi, 1999). Thus, the results from this study can be used in the dissemination and adoption of improved coffee varieties.


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