Many coffee species threatened with extinction, scientists warn

Cristina Cross
January 20, 2019

Climate change, disease, coffee rust and pests coffee beetle can pose a threat to commercial varieties, but the wild species, which are not used in agriculture, there is resistance to climate change and pests.

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.

"Overall, the fact that the extinction risk across all coffee species was so high - almost 60 percent - that's way above normal extinction risk figures for plants", Aaron Davis, one of the study's lead authors, told AFP. Working with these models, they were able to measure how quickly deforestation, drought, and disease are eroding coffee's natural habitat.

But wild coffee isn't what I drink, you say? About 35 of the 124 species grow in areas with no conservation protections.

While cultivated coffee is thriving, making up a hugely profitable business globally, the health of those species will also be affected by climate change. As the researchers note, "Protection of wild populations of Arabica coffee is therefore viewed as a key part of the long‐term sustainability strategy for Ethiopian coffee production and the global coffee sector".

Harvested coffee beans at a coffee plantation in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala.

"This is the first time an IUCN Red List assessment has been carried out to find the extinction risk of the world's coffee, and the results are worrying". All these coffee relatives can help enhance the genetic diversity of commercial coffee species, making them more adaptable to changes in their environment.

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In an age where gene editing is a common tool in laboratories around the world, it's not quite as simple as transferring a pest-resistant gene, for instance, from one coffee species to another.

Ethiopia is the home of Arabica coffee, where it grows naturally in upland rainforests. Of the threatened species, most are under threat in Madagascar, where 43 species are on the decline, and Tanzania, where 12 are.

"Certainly some of the wild relatives might offer us options for breeding some of those in the future".

Less than 50% of the wild coffee species are held in seed banks or living plant collections and more than 28% are not known to occur in any protected areas, the scientists also warned.

Many coffee drinkers are unaware that we only use the coffee beans from two species - Coffea Arabica and Coffea robusta - in the thousands of different blends of coffee on sale. And if you think saving the wild kinds of coffee isn't important, think again.

Although the research is sobering to coffee lovers around the world, the intent of the studies was to highlight the need for "appropriate interventions" - such as forest preservation and assisted migration - according to a Kew statement. There are other options too, but she says, "Conserving coffee in seed banks and specific field stations is often hard and costly, but may also be needed".

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