F1 Hybrids: A Bigger Picture

F1 hybrids are getting a lot of attention in the specialty coffee industry recently and for good reason; they show strong potential for improving farmers’ resilience to climate change. In plant breeding, F1 hybrids are the offspring of true-breed plants. True-breed plants are produced by repeatedly inbreeding plants chosen specifically for their desirable traits such as yield, disease resistance, etc. In the production process of F1s, the true-breed parents are the workhorses.

Typically, the parents have been produced through selective inbreeding to accumulate the desired traits (see figure below, “Visual Selection”). Once the parent phenotype (the plant’s physical appearance) is stable, the same true-breed plants can be used to produce many F1 hybrids over the course of their lifetime.

When two true-breed parents are crossed, they predictably pass on the genes for the target traits to all of their offspring. The fact that the F1 generation contains a consistent mixture of both parents’ genes and the offspring express the desireable traits of both parents is called hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor is the superpower of F1s.

But becuase of the way both parents’ genetic material is recombined to form progeny—a process called Mendelian Inheritance—using F1 parents to produce an F2 generation breaks hybrid vigor. F1 plants are not true-breed. Therefore, producing seeds from F1 plants is not as successful in producing homogenous offspring. Farmers who purchase F1 seeds and plant only F1 seeds will in effect be dependent on the seller of those F1 seeds.

As long as the seller of the F1 seeds remains a rational actor, this is not a problem. However, there is potential for monopolistic behavior; price-gouging as well as patent abuse (if the F1 seeds are patented, which they surely will be). There are also a couple of factors that help to limit potential foul play by F1 sellers: first, coffee plants remain economically productive for several years—sometimes as long as 25-30 years. Farmers don’t purchase them often. Second, because F1’s don’t consistently produce offspring with hybrid vigor, there is very little incentive for legal action against farmers using them as parents (as happend in Indiana with patented soybean seeds).

It’s important to note that selective breeding and genetic research are expensive, time-consuming, and technically complicated matters and F1 plants can be of great value to farmers. They are a great way to ensure that a farmer’s planted stock has the desired traits necessary to help ensure the farmer’s success and sustainability (economic, social, and environmental). We, as an industry, need to make sure that in the process of trying to make things better (by making F1s available, in this case), we don’t create a situation that is worse (a dependence upon a monopoly of F1s).


Michael C. Wright

Michael is an American expat living in Southeast Asia where he writes about many things coffee-related. A roaster by trade, Michael is also a licensed Q Grader, licensed Q Processor Pro, an Authorized SCA Trainer (AST), and most recently: a student pursuing a degree in horticulture.