UNESCO-TWAS idea of a project to organize, along with the Ernesto Illy Foundation, coffee-centred colloquia dated back to 2019. On 27 September, it became a reality with the launch of the three-day event titled: Ernesto Illy Colloquia: Sustainability challenges in coffee-growing worldwide. Sustainability and coffee experts gathered along with nearly 50 young researchers—many from coffee-producing countries—on the campus of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) Trieste, Italy, in the hall dedicated to Paolo Budinich.
Romain Murenzi, Executive Director of UNESCO-TWAS, in his opening remarks, recalled that the Colloquia were designed to empower scientists from coffee-producing countries and to connect them with experts from scientifically advanced nations with the aim of creating a network that supports innovative approaches to coffee research.
The concerted commitment of the Ernesto Illy Foundation and UNESCO-TWAS to hold these colloquia has been, on one side, in line with similar undertakings initiated at the global level, but, at the same time, a 'niche effort', enabling the organizing institutions to honour TWAS very mission to build capacity in developing countries, while also honouring a major reality of TWAS host city, Trieste. Trieste is in fact commonly considered Italy's unofficial 'coffee capital', and is the centre of the Illy Foundation and enterprise.
Furio Suggi Liverani, Chief Scientific Officer of illycaffè, and Director of the Ernesto Illy Foundation, officially presented the Colloquia and paid homage to the 'triestino' chemist and entrepreneur after whom the event was named. Suggi Liverani recalled the mutual admiration that Ernesto Illy and Paolo Budinich—one of TWAS founders—had for each other, and the trust in science the two shared. He also explained the choice of defining the event "colloquia", as Ernesto Illy himself would have wanted it: not a conference, but a place to initiate a debate, to know other coffee players around the world, a place of interdisciplinarity, ideas and true innovation. Ernesto Illy would have appreciated the pooling of eminent scientists and researchers that resulted in the Illy Colloquia of these days.
Engaging was also the keynote intervention by Zitouni Ould-Dada, Deputy Director of the Climate and Environment Division of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, whose introduction set the scene for the sessions to come. His brief yet exhaustive speech on transforming the agri-food systems in light of the current challenges, including the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, and the short time remaining to implement the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals had to work as a motivation, as a booster to accelerate innovative solutions.
The question-and-answer session with Ould-Dada that followed his presentation saw the first numerically timid interventions by the young researchers, and served as an ice-breaker leading to a more intense engagement in the sessions that followed.
The first scientific session of the day started with Erika Coppola, Senior Researcher at the ICTP Earth System Physics section. An expert in climate—extremes, variability and change—Coppola was one of the lead authors of the Working Group I contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in August 2021. In her intervention on "Climate Change and its Effects on Agriculture", she shared the latest update on climate research science and warned that "every small increase in warming will result in an increase in risk."
Geneticist Benoît Bertrand, Research Director of the Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), in France, focused his intervention on "Sustainability Challenges in Agriculture and Coffee-growing". The global context was worrying, he said, underlining a simple but often forgotten truth: "Agriculture provides us with the food we all eat every day". So, agriculture is indeed at risk, but there are solutions, he added. Agriculture can be 'the' solution, in fact, as it could be used to increase carbon sequestration in soils, reduce carbon footprint linked to the transport of raw material, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizers and livestock, and to produce renewable energy, inter alia. He also added that the carbon footprint of coffee is not very high when compared to other agricultural products.
The intervention of Senior Researcher at the University of Lisbon Maria Do Céu Silva focused on coffee pathogens and climate change. The farming of Arabica represents 60 per cent of the global production of coffee, she said, and two of the pathogens that limit its production are what are commonly known as coffee leaf rust, and coffee berry disease. According to Silva, the most sustainable means of control of these pathogens is to foster disease resistance in coffee plant breeding, "the most sustainable, efficient and eco-friendly strategy for disease control," in Do Céu Silva's word. And this is incidentally (or maybe not so much) also the focus of two projects in which Benoît Bertrand has been involved: BREEDCAFS, short for BREEDing Coffee for AgroForestry Systems, and Bolero, scheduled to start in a couple of days, on 1 October 2022, in Viet Nam, Nicaragua and Uganda.
Christoph Sänger, Head of Competiveness in the Policy, Strategy and Delivery Department of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) showed, through graphs, the importance of coffee production as an economic sector that provides livelihoods to over 12 million households, mostly in low-income countries. He also highlighted the importance of specific resources—such as financing, certification and markets—that make coffee-growing viable. "The differences in profitability of farming in a region depends on how much farmers have access to these important resources," he said.
The day ended with break-out groups, each led by one of the day's experts, on the topic of "the future of coffee". The engagement of the young researchers grew more palpable. The results of their discussions will be presented on the third and last day of the Colloquia—Thursday, 29 September—and, in light of the echanges the young researchers had with the day's speakers (and temporary mentors), one can predict that such results will be highly engaging and innovative.
So, while the sessions clearly showed that the current challenges to sustainable coffee-growing are major, the same sessions and the relevant interactions also showed that solutions can be major too, and this was the very raison d'être of the Colloquia.
The gathering was highly interesting, intense, instructive and stimulating. And it also made the very broad, and sometimes lofty, topic of 'sustainability' concrete, in its applications to, and consequences on, the lives of people, agriculture, and livelihoods.
Raffaella De Lia