Gene editing may help Kenyan tea survive climate change, brew good decaf

image of coffee and tea in a cup with leaves (Katrin Hauf/Unsplash)

Whether you prefer coffee or tea, gene editing is boosting the resilience and flavor of our beverages, while providing benefits for growers.

While the total impact of climate change is global, the long-term effects on agriculture vary between microenvironments.

Kenya is the world’s third-largest tea producer, but if climate change continues at its current pace, “tea harvests in some regions could decline by as much as 55%,” reports Innovature. “Unfortunately, small-scale farms will be the most affected.”

Kenya is hugely dependent on the renowned Kenyan tea. So, it’s no wonder that the country’s agricultural planners are paying close attention to how it will fare in the months and years ahead.

They are well aware that tea plants are extremely sensitive to climate. Even the slightest variations in altitude, soil, and rainfall can affect its signature flavor, harvesting cycles, and even basic sustainability.

“Tea is grown in many places — Aberdares, Kericho and Mount Kenya areas,” said Professor Shem Wandiga, former acting director at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation (ICCA).

“In the future, after a 2-degree rise in temperature, most of those areas may lose their tea-growing ability. Kericho may still grow tea but it might not be of the same quality unless we genetically find a brand of tea that grows with a hotter climate.”

Kenya’s Tea Research Institute is addressing the challenge with gene editing—developing tasty tea that can withstand changes in moisture and temperature.

Gene editing is also ensuring we don’t lose sleep over coffee. Decaf just doesn’t have the flavor of regular coffee, because removing caffeine requires “a fairly brutal extraction process” that reduces flavor and can add a chemical taste, says another Innovature piece.

But, as aficionados will tell you, decaf just doesn’t have the flavor profile they like—it doesn’t have the satisfying taste of “real” coffee.

To remove 97% of its caffeine, roasters must put the richly endowed coffee bean through a fairly brutal extraction process that, more often than not, leaves trace chemicals and degrades the bean’s complex tastes and aromas.

Coffee producers are well aware of all this. They’ve scoured the world for naturally occurring caffeine-free coffee plants and have found a few, but so far, crossbreeding and early RNA experiments haven’t worked.

So, plant scientists have come to gene editing for a breakthrough.

Using the revolutionary gene-editing techniques made possible with CRISPR-Cas9, a UK-based company called Tropic Biosciences can turn off the coffee plant’s caffeine-producing gene, without changing the plant in any other way.

The result is a plant that grows naturally without caffeine, without requiring chemical treatment to get the final product.

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