Most Wild Coffee Species, Including Arabica, Are Now in Danger of Extinction

Naturally dried forest coffee. Photo by Emily Garthwaite of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, courtesy of Kew.

Wild Coffea Arabica is for the first time being classified as an endangered species. Worst yet, new research shows that 60 percent of wild coffee species are now under the threat of extinction, posing a long-term risk to local and global supply.

Scientists from UK-based Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, were behind two new reports published today. The first paper, in Science Advances, focuses on the high extinction potential for the majority of the world’s wild coffee species. The second, in Global Change Biology, focuses on climate change and the long-term threats it poses to wild arabica, primarily in Ethiopia.

Coffee Beans, large and small

Beans of threatened coffee species Ambongo (left) and Arabica (right) in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of Kew.

Together, the papers offer a bleak long-term outlook for the future of wild coffee, in which the pool of genetic material available to scientists and breeders may be drastically reduced in the coming decades.

“In terms of sustainability, it’s very much a long view. We’re interested in decades,” Dr. Aaron Davis, a lead researcher for both papers, told Daily Coffee News from London. “That said, if we don’t start doing something now, it may be too late.”

60 Percent in Danger of Extinction

Researchers estimate that there are 124 coffee species existing in the wild. It’s a remarkable number, considering only two are widely used for commercial production: Coffea Arabica (commonly known just as arabica) and Coffea Canephora (robusta).

Of these coffee species — much of which comes from the forests of arabica’s genetic birthplace, Ethiopia, other parts of Africa and Madagascar — some 60 percent are now classified according to IUCN Red List standards as under threat of extinction due to deforestation, climate change and the spread and severity of fungal pathogens and pests.

Coffee growing in the Harenna Forest in Ethiopia. Dr Aaron Davis and Techane Gonfa. Image RBG Kew.

Coffee growing in the Harenna Forest in Ethiopia. Dr Aaron Davis and Techane Gonfa. Photo courtesy of Kew.

Davis noted that to some people in the coffee sector, conservation of wild species might seem “a bit left field,” but he also pointed out the fact that the commercial cultivation of two wild species alone, arabica and robusta, have created an entire global economy, one that grows ever more fragile as climate changes, and even as people’s tastes adapt.

“It’s a pressing issue, when you speak to coffee breeders; accessing genetic material is becoming increasingly difficult,” Davis told DCN. “From where I’m sitting, if you’re limiting your options to arabica and robusta, you’re limiting your future.”

Davis estimated that the coffee sector is approximately 20 to 30 years behind other agricultural sectors in its sustainability research and conservation efforts, despite the fact that it is so widely traded and consumed.

Threatened [endangered] Namoroko coffee (Coffea namorokensis), western Madagascar. Image_Aaron Davis, RBG, Kew.

Threatened (endangered) Namoroko coffee (Coffea namorokensis) in western Madagascar. Aaron Davis photo, courtesy of Kew.

Dr. Eimear Nic Lughadha, a fellow senior research leader at Kew said the global estimate for extinction endangerment for all plant types is 22 percent, compared to the 60 percent mark for coffee.

“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,” Nic Lughadha said in an announcement of the report’s publication. “We hope this new data will highlight species to be prioritized for the sustainability of the coffee production sector so that appropriate action can be taken to safeguard their future.”

Local conservation of forests in Ethiopia, Madagascar or other places where wild coffee grows is one major piece of coffee’s conservation puzzle, yet Davis said that so too are facilities like seed banks or individual plant collections.

Threatened [endangered] Ambongo coffee (Coffea ambongensis), western Madagascar. Image_Aaron Davis, RBG, Kew.

Threatened (endangered) Ambongo coffee (Coffea ambongensis), in western Madagascar. Photo courtesy of KEW.

“The trouble is that preservation measures in the wild are not sufficient; to capture the amount of genetic diversity in the wild is nearly impossible,” Davis said. On the flip side, he added, “Maintaining those [plant] collections is really expensive, and nobody wants to pay for it.”

Wild Arabica Under Threat

Kew partnered with Ethiopian researchers for the second research paper, which they said represented the first formal extinction assessment risk for arabica coffee.

The researchers estimate that, based on climate change alone, the natural population of arabica is estimated to be reduced by 50 percent or more by 2088.

Kew scientist Dr Justin Moat, using drone technology to measure coffee production, south-west Ethiopia. Image RBG Kew.

Kew scientist Dr Justin Moat using drone technology to measure coffee production in southwest Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Kew.

“Our initial evaluation of Arabica coffee suggested that it was not threatened with extinction in the wild,” said Dr. Justin Moat, head of spatial analysis at Kew, and one of the paper’s authors. “However, after factoring in climate change, it moved upwards by two categories to become an endangered species. These findings are so important as they indicate that the extinction risk to many other coffee species could be much worse if we consider climate change.”

This research follows other Kew-led research on arabica over the past decades that has been equally troubling. In 2012, Kew and Ethiopian researchers provided the first glimpse of wild arabica’s long-term prospects, suggesting it could reach near-extinction by 2080. In 2017, the group of researchers found that as much as 60 percent of the land used for coffee production in Ethiopia could become unsuitable due to climate change by the end of the century.

Flowers of Arabica coffee. Image_Aaron Davis, RBG Kew. (2)

Flowers of Arabica coffee. Aaron Davis photo, courtesy of Kew.

“Ethiopia is the home of Arabica coffee, where it grows naturally in our upland rainforests,” Dr. Tadesse Woldermariam Gole, a senior researcher for Environment, Climate Change and Coffee Forest Forum, said in an announcement released by Kew. “Given the importance of Arabica coffee to Ethiopia, and the world, we need to do our utmost to understand the risks facing its survival in the wild.”

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