Coffee Under Threat: How Wild Arabica Could Go Extinct

A study published this month predicts that the end is near for wild Arabica coffee thanks to the effects of climate change and deforestation.

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REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez

A woman inspects coffee berries in a plantation near Viota in Cundinamarca province, Colombia.

It’s bad news for coffee lovers. A study published this month by researchers at Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew together with scientists in Ethiopia, predicts that the end is near for wild Arabica coffee — Coffea Arabica — thanks to the effects of climate change and deforestation.

Using computer modeling of various climate conditions between now and 2020, 2050 and 2080, the researchers found there would be at least a 65% decline in the number of existing suitable environments to grow indigenous Arabica — and in the worst case a 99.7% reduction by 2080. The researchers are still calling this a ‘conservative’ estimate, because it doesn’t take into account full-scale deforestation.

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In terms of the world’s most traded commodities, coffee is second only to oil. Some 93.4 million bags were shipped globally from 2009 to 2010; it’s crucial to the economies of many countries — including Ethiopia, Africa’s largest coffee producer — and over 100 million people depend on the crop for their livelihood.

These projections are certainly alarming, but don’t start hoarding your favorite beans just yet. The coffee that is grown for everyday consumption is not wild Arabica, but commercially cultivated. This bean makes up some 70% of the world’s commercial production, while the Robusta bean — with a higher caffeine content, it’s normally used for making freeze-dried coffee — makes up the rest.

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But while climate change won’t pose an immediate threat to your morning cup of coffee, there’s still a problem. Coffee grown on commercial plantations, like many other crops grown to produce high yields, lack genetic diversity — and are thus highly susceptible to disease. Wild Arabica, which makes up just 5% of Ethiopia’s coffee crop compared to other kinds of coffee, is thought to account for over 98% of the coffee bean’s gene pool and has an estimated value to the coffee industry of almost $1.5 billion per year.

Aaron Davis, Kew Gardens’ head of coffee research, explained why this is a problem:

“If you lose those natural resources you are really shooting yourself in the foot because you have no back-up for unforeseen changes that could occur in the future in commercial crops.”

If disease or climate change causes a die-off of commercially grown Arabica, it’d still be possible to re-engineer it from a wider genetic pool — which is why wild Arabica is so precious. Ethiopian scientist Tadesse Woldemariam Gole, who also took part in the study, explained that protecting the wild variety would be a “future-proofing exercise for the long-term sustainability of Arabica production.”

While these worst-case scenarios are still a long way away (we hope), coffee, like other crops, is already taking a hit from climate change.  Prices hit their highest point in 34 years last summer when a poor harvest caused frenzied speculation on the world’s coffee markets. For java aficionados, the future without wild Arabica could be bleak.

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