November | December 2018
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“Your triumphs will earn your house points, while any rule-breaking will lose house points.”
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Sectumsempra. Galactomannans. Genotypogram. I will award fifty House of Roast points to anyone who can, without the aid of Google, identify which of these terms are Harry Potter spells and which are topics from the Association for Science and Information on Coffee (ASIC) conference held in September in Portland, Oregon. To a non-Ph.D-holding publisher, the ASIC conference really felt like a gathering of wizards of all types from all corners of the world.
Amid the talk of fuzzy cuppers and climate-smart coffees, I came upon a few important realizations. First, the language and the data we use when discussing issues related to coffee are important. As experts in our field, people trust us when we advocate for a particular point of view. It is our responsibility to know the origin of the facts we cite and communicate those facts with precise language when advocating for points of view that impact consumers, producers, roasters and business owners.
A great example is the commonly quoted number of 25 million coffee farmers. Much of the published literature cites this number, but with various modifiers. Are there 25 million coffee farms in the world? 25 million coffee farmers? 25 million members of coffee-farming households? 25 million individuals whose livelihoods depend on coffee? One of the presentations at the ASIC conference provided a detailed statistical analysis to estimate the number of coffee farms around the world, and the figure reported turned out to be half the oft-quoted 25 million.
At the risk of sounding “fusty” (a fantastic new word I learned at the conference), language and detail matter. Or, as better stated by Mark Twain, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Realization No. 2, which came to me about 35 seconds into the conference, is that, although I have been working in the coffee world for more than two decades, I still have a lot to learn. There exist unexplored depths to every area of coffee, from plant science to the connection between coffee and health and, yes, even to roasting and processing technology. Connecting scientific knowledge with real-world applications takes true understanding, which is a challenge that is both exciting and daunting.
Finally, the work of these scientists and the funding that supports them play a crucial role in all of our futures. They are using new technologies in artificial intelligence, gene sequencing, and advanced computer simulation and modeling to discover places in the coffee universe many of us could not have imagined just 10 years ago. As someone who is constantly impressed by the quality of the work presented by these wizards, I cannot help myself from closing with the words of a famous science fiction writer:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.—Arthur C. Clarke