Most of Our Planet's Wild Coffee Species Are in Danger of Extinction

Most of Our Planet's Wild Coffee Species Are in Danger of Extinction

Scientists at Britain's Kew Royal Botanic Gardens used the latest computer modelling techniques and on-the-ground research to predict how the 124 coffee varieties listed as endangered might fare as the planet continues to warm and ecosystems are decimated.

The global coffee trade now relies on only two species - Arabica (60 per cent) and Robusta (40 per cent) - but given the myriad of emerging and worsening threats to coffee farming globally, other coffee species are likely to be required for coffee crop plant development.

A 2016 report commissioned by Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand predicted that in just a few decades, climate change could cut coffee production by up to 50 percent, hurting both consumers of coffee and farmers of the crop.

At least 60 percent of wild coffee species are considered "threatened", according to a study published this week in Science Advances. Working with these models, they were able to measure how quickly deforestation, drought, and disease are eroding coffee's natural habitat. "In another way, it's hardly surprising because a lot of species are hard to find, grow in restricted areas. some have a population only the size of a football pitch". As climate change and disease risks escalate, wild coffee species offer a crucial resource for maintaining the world's coffee supply.

"The use and development of wild coffee resources could be key to the long-term sustainability of the coffee sector", Dr Aaron Davis, lead author of the paper, said.

Global coffee chain Starbucks, which uses all Arabica beans, failed to respond to a request for comment. To assess the risks faced by wild coffees, Davis and his colleagues applied a barometer developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international organization that assesses biodiversity risks. "Some other coffee species are naturally low in caffeine, or have an excellent (and unusual) flavor", she says.

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"We can grow coffee commercially anywhere in the world now".

Young Arabica coffee plants, south-west Ethiopia.

The threats facing wild coffee are significant for the future of one of the world's most widely drunk brews because wild varieties have been used to breed and improve the cultivated stock over the years, the experts said.

The wild relative of the world's most popular coffee species, Coffea arabica, is an endangered species. The sole surviving specimen of that wild coffee has inspired wider forest conservation on Rodrigues. Coffee seeds don't store well, unlike wild relatives of other crops such as wheat or maize. Some countries like Ethiopia have launched the Yayu Forest Coffee Project, which encourages farmers to plant coffee inside forests, creating a cash crop while protecting precious woodlands.

This is because seed bank storage freezers, even at -20 degrees Celsius, don't cut it when it comes to preserving coffee beans. "We hope this new data will highlight species to be prioritised for the sustainability of the coffee production sector so that appropriate action can be taken to safeguard their future".

This is bad news for the planet, for communities and for coffee drinkers.

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