Building a sustainable future for the Australian coffee industry

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The Australian coffee grower industry generates a unique product from a small footprint. Established as a commercial entity over the last 30 years, it has successfully created a distinct niche, delivering high quality product to small domestic, tourist and specialist export markets. But over 99 percent of coffee consumed in Australia is roasted from imported beans.

AgriFutures has identified the Australian coffee industry with strong growth potential and has invested in several coffee research projects in recent years to increase the production capacity and value of the industry.

Coffee production in Australia is developing, with around 50 commercial growers, producing coffee from a total of 300-350 hectares.

Rebecca Zentveld, Zentveld’s Australian Coffee and President of the Australian Subtropical Coffee Association said, “there is room for more! Australia needs more growers’ and we want them to grow well and grow quality. That is good for all of us, to showcase to the world the high standard of coffee we can grow here.”

Potential growth for the industry is huge (currently servicing less than 1% of demand), and the integration of sustainability practices across the supply chain is tipped to be a game changer for the local industry, allowing Australian coffee growers to compete against imported coffee. It will also provide the industry with a competitive advantage.

The success of fair-trade coffee has demonstrated the appeal of socially sustainable imported coffee. But while sustainability at the grower level is strong, it is not integrated across the industry. Up to 90% of a food-producing organisations environmental impacts occur either upstream or downstream in its supply chain, so creating a sustainable Australian coffee industry requires a sustainable supply chain.

The project Building a sustainable future for the Australian coffee growers’ industry collected information from Australian growers and members of the supply chain regarding their current practice, needs and aspirations. The information was benchmarked against international best practice and used to develop the Australian Coffee Strategic RD&E Plan for the implementation of a coordinated and cooperative sustainable whole of coffee growing supply chain.

Professor Stuart Orr, Department of Management, Deakin Business School, Deakin University and principal researcher said, “Integrating sustainability practices across the industry and its supply chain will transform the industry from individual sustainable farm operations to a fully sustainable value chain from the supply of raw materials through to the cup.”

With over 99% of the coffee consumed in Australia being roasted from imported beans, and major Australian cities now boasting one of the most sophisticated coffee cultures globally, there are significant market opportunities for Australian grown beans.

Increasing the size of the Australian coffee industry depends on attracting new investors who are directly involved in the industry and providing relevant information to continue to define the value of Australian origin coffee as a global niche product.

This requires access to new cultivars that will decrease the cost of production, improve productivity through less pruning, are not susceptible to the major coffee diseases and sustain or increase quality and the unique attributes of Australian grown coffee.

The Australian coffee industry is based on the K7 coffee cultivar. This cultivar was developed in the 1970s and has vigorous growth in Australia’s subtropical climate. The trees are too tall for mechanical harvesting, meaning growers must prune trees heavily resulting in large production losses (i.e. crop loss every 1 in 3 years).

A new semi-dwarf variety that requires less pruning but with the same or better quality in the cup is urgently needed.

Through the project Assessing the performance of international coffee cultivars in Australia, AgriFutures has partnered with Southern Cross University (SCU) and the Australian Subtropical Coffee Association (ATSCA) to secure access to new cultivars recently established in a World Coffee Research (WCR) trial in NSW.

Associate Professor Tobias Kretzchmar, SCU and principal researcher said, “This provides a unique opportunity for Australian coffee growers with potential replacements for the existing K7 cultivar being identified.”

“The variety trials will provide details about the genetics and how the varieties perform under local environmental conditions, allowing evaluation of the varieties for their suitability to the Australian coffee grower industry.”

“We have assessed 25 WCR international varieties with a number of varieties showing potential as suitable replacements for the K7 cultivar. The research team is currently negotiating with the WCR and breeders to commercialise these varieties.”

Understanding the cupping terroir and the role it plays in coffee production is key to increasing demand and investment in the industry.

Through the project Defining terroir of Australian coffee to increase demand and investment researchers are using metabolomic analysis, machine learning and sensory panels to define the unique components of Australian subtropical coffee, to reflect and represent cuppers’ palate definitions in the premium domestic and export market.

The ultimate outcome is to improve the tasting experience of the consumer.

“Your eye always has to be on the end game, and for us and our consumers, that is making beautiful coffee,” said Bec Zentveld.

The landscape, soil and microclimate produce the elements of quality, but Bec said, “The grower needs to nurture that through looking after the coffee from seed to tree and soil care, through to harvest and processing the raw green bean coffee.”

All stages affect quality and growers must maximise the potential and offer a high-quality coffee that rewards efforts and competes against cheaper produced and imported beans.

“Poor coffee just will not and would not be worthwhile,” said Bec.

“Coffee is more than just drinking something out of a cup. It is much more complicated than people think (the journey of coffee to their cup) but for us, it is about putting a smile on people’s faces when they drink our coffee.”

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