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60% of Wild Coffee Species Could Go Extinct – Here’s Why

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Natural Society

New research says that more than half of the world’s wild coffee is at risk of extinction. Thanks to an ever-changing climate, deforestation, and disease, your morning caffeine could one day become a thing of the past, if the authors’ conclusions are correct. [1]

Scientists from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom, analyzed 124 known coffee species and found that 75 – 60% – are at risk of extinction. Thirteen of those species were deemed “critically endangered.”

Aaron Davis, Kew’s head of coffee research said: [2]

“We knew it would be high, but we didn’t actually think it would be that high.”

While there are conservation measures in place, the report makes it clear that they are not enough to protect wild coffee. What’s more, some of the species of coffee analyzed by the researchers may already be long gone.

Eimear Nic Lughadha, lead scientist for Kew’s Plant Assessment Unit and a co-author of the report, published in Science Advances and Global Change Biology, said:

“Some of the coffee species assessed have not been seen in the wild for more than 100 years, and it is possible that some may already be extinct.”

Read: Coffee Apocalypse Coming? Demand and Brazilian Drought Point to “Yes”

IUCN Extinction Risk Categories for Coffee Species | Waffle chart, showing the proportion and number of threatened, nonthreatened, and DD coffee species in main blocks, and the proportion and number of coffee species assigned to each IUCN extinction risk category. The total number of species is 124 [CR, 10.5% (13 species); EN, 32.3% (40 species); VU, 17.7% (22 species); NT, 8% (10 species); LC, 21% (26 species); DD, 11.3% (14 species)]. Each square is equal to one species. (Click for larger version.)

Here’s the scary part for coffee-lovers: Coffee arabica, the most popular species of coffee in the world, is now classified as endangered, in large part because ‘scientists expect it to be hit hard by future climate change.’ In addition, arabica coffee is especially susceptible to diseases, including the particularly devastating coffee leaf rust fungus. Even arabica-robusta hybrids that were once resistant are starting to succumb. [2]

The scientists conducted the survey of coffee species under guidelines from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The body publishes a global Red List of threatened species. [1]

The IUCN says the rate of threatened coffee species was determined to be “extremely high.”

Right now, the cultivated coffee industry is safe; thriving, even. But scientists worry about the long-term health of the industry if the wild coffee species go extinct. Coffee crops rely on wild strains for stability and diversity, as well as seeds and protection against diseases.

Wild coffee species cannot be saved by storing seeds in the “doomsday” seed vault in Spitsbergen, Norway, because coffee seeds will not germinate after being frozen. Instead, coffee beans have been haphazardly conserved in 52 field collections in coffee-growing countries. Conserving them this way is not only expensive, but it requires a great deal of labor and there are limited resources to protect the seeds. [2]

Total Number of Coffee Species Threatened with Extinction by Area | Map showing threatened coffee species by TDWG level 3 areas (countries or subdivisions of countries; see Materials and Methods for the definition of TDWG level 3). See fig. S1 for number of coffee species by area. (Click for larger version.)

The coffee scientists have prioritized 4 gene banks – 3 in Africa, and 1 in Costa Rica – in an effort to save wild coffee. These banks, the team says, need to be upgraded to provide the right conditions for existing plants, and they need to be able to share any genetic material. All of this is expected to cost the coffee industry approximately $25 million over the next 25 years.

Read: Coffee Leads to Immortality?! Study Outlines Longevity Benefits of Coffee

The majority of coffee is grown by small farmers, all of whom stand to lose their livelihood if wild coffee species die out. This is especially true of coffee grown in Ethiopia, Africa’s largest coffee producer. Arabic crops there are projected to decline by 85% by the year 2080 if greater conservation efforts aren’t soon undertaken.

By the end of the century, as much as 60% of the land used for coffee cultivation could become unstable. It goes without saying that this would be catastrophic for the more than 15 million people employed by the cultivated coffee industry. [1]

The authors of the report are calling for scientists, policy makers, coffee industry bodies, and farmers to breed more resilient strains and “protect the future of coffee.”

Davis said:

“Targeted action is urgently required.”


[1] Time

[2] Science Magazine


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