Climate change is threatening an unthinkable amount of life on our planet, and our daily caffeine kick is no exception. According to a new study from the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBC), Kew, 60 percent of wild coffee species – including Arabica, the world’s most valuable coffee plant – are threatened with extinction.
There are 124 known wild coffee species, most of which are found in Africa and Madagascar. The world’s coffee industry relies on two species of cultivated coffee, Arabica (Coffea arabica), which makes up 60 percent of traded coffee, and robusta (Coffea canephora), which gives us the other 40 percent.
Publishing their findings in the journal Science Advances, researchers found that at least 60 percent of all wild coffee species are threatened with extinction. What’s more, they discovered that 28 percent of species are not found in any protected areas and current measures to conserve wild coffee are “inadequate”.
"Overall, the fact that the extinction risk across all coffee species was so high – nearly 60 percent – that's way above normal extinction risk figures for plants," lead author Aaron Davis told AFP.
Although we get our coffee from cultivated crops, not wild coffee plants, the new findings are problematic as we rely on wild coffee to sustain them. As the planet warms, we will need to cross-breed our coffee crops with wild plants that are more genetically diverse in order to produce plants that are more resilient to climate change, along with the pests and diseases that come with it.
"We will call on those wild resources time and time again," Davis told BBC News.
Arabica coffee plantations are very limited in terms of genetic diversity and probably won’t cope well with climate change. Arabica grows naturally in South Sudan and Ethiopia, the largest producer of coffee in Africa, and declines in the species could have serious impacts on the country’s economically important coffee industry.
The researchers came to their conclusions using computer modeling, and note that wild Arabica’s future is likely even bleaker than they predict as they did not include factors such as deforestation, disease, and declines in birds (key coffee dispersers) due to a lack of suitable data. As cultivated Arabica grows in the same environmental conditions as its threatened wild counterpart, climate change will likely impact our crops too.
“The extinction of Arabica coffee is a startling and worrying prospect,” writes RBC, Kew.
“The worst-case scenario, as drawn from our analyses, is that wild Arabica could be extinct by 2080. This should alert decision makers to the fragility of the species,” said study author Justin Moat in a statement.
But there’s still hope. The authors note that what we need to do now is work to conserve wild coffee species to protect their vital genetic diversity. They suggest adding more species to germplasm inventories, which store genetic resources of plants like seeds and tissues. At the moment, only 45 percent of coffee species are found in these inventories.
“African countries that both cultivate coffee and are home to wild coffee species in natural environments are well placed to develop and conserve their wild coffee resources,” the authors conclude. “They should be supported to do so by the international development and conservation communities.”