Brazil has found the holy grail of modern life by decoding the genetic structure of the coffee plant, and caffeine-addicted organic food lovers can already be seen shaking in their ethic-dilemma-filled boots.
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand celebrated coffee as "black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love." After just over two years of research, Brazil, the world's largest producer of coffee beans, has created a genetic database filled with the plant's beautiful and previously unknown secrets.
The database contains more than 200,000 strands of DNA derived from about 35,000 Arabica coffee genes. This sequenced coffee genome data, when analyzed by Brazilian researchers, will reveal exactly what creates different aromas, flavours and caffeine levels in the ambrosia of the bean.
Armed with this information, they plan to breed beans which will be used to create coffee that tastes and smells better than anything you've known before but that also have the potency to leave you quivering and shaking like a teenage girl who's had her heart broken for the first time.
Brazil has already announced its intention to create a "super-coffee" to cater to the "rich tastes" of North American aficionados.
Brazilian Agriculture Minister Roberto Rodrigues said in an interview with Reuters that it will be a crop "everyone can benefit from." The country wants to improve its global reputation as a "junk" coffee producer by enhancing the quality and producivity (while lowering the cost) of its crop.
Within the next two years, we could see the development of new gourmet, organic and even caffeine-free beans. For people who know how most decaffeinated coffee is currently created (using either methylene chloride or ethyl acetate processing techniques), the prospect of a chemical-free process – even if it comes by way of a genetically modified plant – sounds like a comforting alternative.
On a production level, the research will allow Brazilian farmers to nearly double their yield per hectare and increase the plants' resistance to disease and bugs.
So with a more efficient and heartier crop that tastes better, smells better and rocks out in every way, what's the catch?
Well, it becomes an issue of semantics for Brazil, one of the few countries that proudly – and loudly – bans the planting of genetically modified crops.
The coffee genome database is going to be used, according to official reports, to develop new varieties of coffee plants through natural means. Brazilian scientists plan to use cross-pollination and other agricultural techniques to achieve all their goals and, they stress that they will not create genetically modified plants in laboratories.
Whether you pronounce it tomayto or tomahto, the fact is that the pressures on this initiative will be significant from senior levels of the bureaucracy as research and development shift into high gear. It's not just about producing better, cheaper, stronger coffee beans and a stronger Brazilian national coffee industry at this point, but about filing for global patents on new research, techniques and crops.
After all, licensing the technology will be a significant secondary revenue stream for the patent holders, especially as global courts are frequently upholding these patents (i.e., the Canadian Supreme Court's May 2004 Monsanto v. Schmeiser decision).
So while Brazil may say it doesn't intend to produce or market GMO crops, no doubt many people in dark suits will realize it's faster, more efficient and far more profitable to go that route.
In the meantime, conscious consumers will have to be prepared for the day when they're forced to choose between much better coffee that may have any number of long-term unforeseen effects (see the extensive literature on the effects of GMO crops) and their same old cup of joe.
According to the Coffee Association of Canada, coffee is the most popular beverage consumed on a daily basis by Canadians, 63% of adult Canadians drink coffee every day, and the average coffee drinker consumes 2.6 cups per day.