More than half of all wild coffee species facing extinction, study warns

Climate change and deforestation are putting more than half the world’s wild coffee species at risk of extinction, including popular coffees Arabica and Robusta, experts at Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew have warned.

Research published by scientists at Kew found that 60% of all wild coffee species are threatened with extinction, and that current conservation measures for wild coffee species are not enough to protect their long-term future.

The global coffee trade currently relies on only two species – Arabica (around 60%) and Robusta (around 40%). Arabica coffee has entered The IUCN Red List – which classifies the global conservation status of plants, animals and other species – as an Endangered species, largely due to climate change projections.

These new figures come after two decades of research undertaken by Kew to discover, analyse and document the world’s coffee species, and assess their extinction risk. Much of this work was undertaken first-hand in the wild locations where coffee grows, mainly in the remote forests of Africa and on the island of Madagascar.

The importance of Arabica to Ethiopia is paramount. Ethiopia is the natural birthplace of wild Arabica coffee and Africa’s largest coffee exporter, with an annual export value of US$1bn, and 15 million of its population engaged in coffee production.

In Ethiopia, wild Arabica coffee is an important source of seed stock for coffee farming, a source of disease resistance, and also a harvested crop in its own right. But Arabica coffee could be in jeopardy if conservation action is not taken to protect the plant from a changing climate and deforestation.

In 2017, researchers at Kew looked at the influence of climate change on coffee farming, showing that up to 60% of the land used for Ethiopia’s coffee production could become unsuitable for use by the end of the century.

Aaron Davis, Head of Coffee Research at Kew and who lead the research, said: “Among the coffee species threatened with extinction are those that have potential to be used to breed and develop the coffees of the future, including those resistant to disease and capable of withstanding worsening climatic conditions. The use and development of wild coffee resources could be key to the long-term sustainability of the coffee sector. Targeted action is urgently required in specific tropical countries, particularly in Africa, to protect the future of coffee.”

Some of the coffee species assessed by researchers at Kew have not been seen in the wild for more than 100 years, and it is possible that some may already be extinct.

Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew hope the new data will highlight species to be prioritised for the sustainability of the coffee production sector so that appropriate action can be taken to safeguard the future of coffee.

Rosa Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief @rosamedea

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