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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
Coffee didn’t alter the direction of Sarada Krishnan’s life. It merely flowed through it.
She was a year into her Ph.D. at the University of Colorado at Boulder, focusing on Prunus africana, an endangered tree in Madagascar. After a year of toil reviewing all the previous research, she found out the grant she’d been hoping would fund her project had been given to another scholar.
“I was devastated,” she said. “After a year of working on it, I had to completely start over.”
She opened a book, and a photograph fell out. It showed her late father, standing in the trees of her family’s coffee plantation in the Wynad district of Kerala, an Indian state.
“I thought, ‘Oh! Maybe I should work on coffee.’ And it turned out there was a need for coffee research in Madagascar.”
The liquid fuel that kick-starts so many mornings across the globe is anything but simple in horticulture, in commerce, in ethics. Coffee is the world’s second-most widely traded commodity (oil is No. 1). It provides a living for 75 million people. The coffee fruit, whose “beans” are actually seeds, grows on trees in the subtropical mountains of Jamaica, Haiti, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Kenya — 80 countries in all.
Preserving the genes of those coffee trees is what drives Krishnan, the Denver Botanic Gardens’ horticulture director. And it drives her at 80 or 90 miles an hour. She talks fast, the words, big technical ones, tumbling out. Since powering through that bump on the way to her doctorate, she has bought two coffee plantations in Jamaica and is part-owner of a third; she’d like to use one of them for coffee research. She’s consulted on efforts to revitalize the coffee industry in Haiti. She’s waiting for her importer’s license and certification to come through. She’s divorced with two sons, Vinay, 19, and Vilok, 16.
What is your educational background?
Sarada has a Bachelor of Science degree in Horticulture from India, where her focus was on tropical horticulture. She has a Master of Science degree in Horticulture from Colorado State University, with a research focus on the propagation of native Colorado flora, specializing in plant tissue culture. Her doctorate research at University of Colorado, Boulder, focused on the conservation genetics of wild coffee (Coffea spp.) in Madagascar. She was at CSU from 1987-1989 working under the advisement of Dr. Harrison Hughes. She worked in the tissue culture lab on the 3rd floor of the Shepherdson Building and assisted Dr. Hughes with his Plant Propagation lab. She now serves as faculty affiliate in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture.
Her favorite brew? Jamaican Blue Mountain,. Her drink at Starbucks? A triple-shot latte. “I do sugar and milk, which is sacrilege to real coffee experts. Sugar is bad enough, but milk! But that’s how I grew up drinking it. And I started at 7 or 8 years old.”
Can you describe your work?
She drinks coffee. She farms coffee. She studies coffee. “For me, having the production side is beneficial to the scientific side and vice versa,” she says.
Her involvement in coffee research is part of the botanic gardens’ Center for Global Initiatives, a conceptual umbrella that also covers staff expeditions to study native plants in places like South America and Mongolia. It fits with the gardens’ mission of having its scientists make an impact on both global and local levels.
It fits with her own DNA. “You know, my father was a businessman,” she says. “But he really loved plants.”
With coffee, there’s a lot to study. As with wine, nobody really knows what makes coffee from different regions taste different, she says. “There are 58 different species of coffee plant. Some of them are low in caffeine or have no caffeine. And you never know what genetic material is going to be valuable.”
Coffea arabica, for example, is predominantly self-pollinating. Its seeds have less caffeine, and it yields the smooth flavor most coffee lovers seek. But precisely because it self-pollinates, it has low genetic diversity. Coffea canephora produces what’s known as robusta coffee, higher in caffeine and more bitter and mainly used for less-expensive blends. It grows at lower altitudes and is more disease- and pest-resistant. But robusta has to be cross-pollinated, requiring the help of seasonal rains or insects.
Coffee trees take five years to reach full production. If currently unknown wild coffee genes disappear because of climate change, or development pressures, or the kinds of civil wars or mere unrest that make tree farming impossible, they’re gone forever. It’s this threat of lost genetic potential that haunts botanists and motivates conservation fieldwork.
Can you describe any research project that you worked on recently?
That’s why Krishnan and a handful of other scientists, some South Sudanese scholars and some porters and guides found themselvestramping through the country’s mountains last month in the last days before the rainy season. The trip was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and involved the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University; England’s Royal Botanic Gardens; and several coffee trade and research organizations.
South Sudan’s Boma Plateau sits across a valley from Ethiopia, the birthplace of arabica coffee. From their camp in a dusty village named Jonglai, where fat, juicy mangoes continually dropped from huge old trees, Krishnan and her cohorts hiked the mountain forests for five days in search of wild coffee. They were guided by a botanical survey from the 1940s that had found flourishing populations.
Seven decades later, they found only one full-grown tree and clusters of seedlings — a significant deterioration.
Krishnan and her colleagues marked 75 seedlings with aluminum tags, recording their GPS coordinates and collecting their leaves for DNA analysis back in Denver.
On the last day of their week in the Boma forest, they met Kaiwa, a 70-year-old woman who said she knew of a stand of coffee trees a few mountains away. She offered to climb with them to show them.
“That climb was so steep,” Krishnan says, “I almost fell off a cliff. Two people grabbed my arms and pulled me up.”
But Kaiwa’s stand of trees was too far for the team to reach in a single day’s hike. They’ll have to hope to return to it on a follow-up expedition in November or December; hope that South Sudan’s newly won independence takes root; hope that border battles with Sudan over oilfields and pipelines don’t spread to the rest of the country.
All this for a harvest that can be held in the crook of Krishnan’s elbow, a gallon Ziploc full of sample bags stuffed with white crystals and shards of green leaves.
A bag that was lost for two nights with Krishnan’s checked luggage.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, the point of the whole trip, and all the thousands of dollars!’ But I checked it because I didn’t want to have to explain that white powder to three different sets of customs officials.”
British Airways found Krishnan’s luggage, and the studies are now underway. Krishnan is extracting the DNA, then sending it to a Nevada lab for amplification. The lab will return to Krishnan a genetic fingerprint for each sampled plant.
The goals of establishing a living coffee-gene preserve in the South Sudan, of helping the fledgling nation’s economy, will take decades to fulfill. Already, though, the trip has produced the first documentation of one wild coffee species in the South Sudan. Ethiopian scientists are now expected to join in the project.
Krishnan’s cup runneth over.
“Botanical fieldwork is not easy,” she said. “By the fourth day, I was asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But six months later, I’m always ready to go again.”