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World's Coffee Under Threat

60% out of the 124 known species of coffee are on the verge of extinction

Photo by Lilian Wong (Flickr)
by Natalia Dec

Across the world, over a hundred different types of coffee trees grow naturally in forests—however, out of those, only two are cultivated for the coffee we drink and see in our supermarket aisles every day. Following the first ever full risk assessment to coffee plants around the world, scientists found that 60% out of the 124 known species are on the verge of extinction.


Excluding the coffee beans of the Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta plants, which are most commonly used in the multitude of coffee blends available on sale, there are 122 species which can be found to grow naturally in the wild. While these wild species do not have the same pleasant taste as the coffee beans we find in shops, they possess genes which may aid coffee plants in surviving conditions such as emerging new diseases and climate change. Dr Aaron Davis, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, states that “if it wasn't for wild species we wouldn't have as much coffee to drink in the world today” and that “if you look at the history of coffee cultivation, we have used wild species to make the coffee crop sustainable".


In a study published in Science Advances, it was found that conservation measures for wild coffee were insufficient, even for species considered critical to continuing coffee production. 75 coffee species were stated to be under threat of extinction, with too little information on another 14 to propose a prognosis, while only 35 were found to be under no threat.


A second study published in Global Change Biology discovered that wild Coffea Arabica can be considered threatened according to IUCN Red List rankings when future climate change is observed, and that its natural population is estimated to decrease by around 50% by 2088. Dr Tadesse Woldemariam Gole, of the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum in Addis Ababa, warns: "Given the importance of Arabica coffee to Ethiopia, and to the world, we need to do our utmost to understand the risks facing its survival in the wild.”


Coffea Arabica is essential to Ethiopia, where it can be found to grow naturally in upland rainforests and is used as both a harvested crop and as a seed supply for coffee.


45% of coffee species in the wild have remained without back-ups in seed banks, as coffee trees, akin to many other tropical plants, are incapable of surviving the freeze-drying which is used to effectively store them.


Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha of Kew hopes that the new data gathered from studies will “highlight species to be prioritised for the sustainability of the coffee production sector, so that appropriate action can be taken to safeguard the species”.


Long term, scientists highlight the importance of understanding the risks which the coffee farming industry is facing, as well as ensuring that the proper tools to aid in the fight against these threats are available.

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