Climate change, disease, and deforestation are pushing wild coffee species to the brink of extinction.

Coffee beans.

Image credits: Michal Jarmoluk.

Researchers from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in the UK, say that nearly 60% of the 124 known species of wild coffee are at risk of extinction. Some areas of the world are particularly disheartening for the beloved beans — over 71% of wild coffee species found in Madagascar and the Indian Ocean, for instance, are threatened.

It’s bean a pleasure

“As a coffee drinker you don’t need to worry in the short term,” lead author Aaron Davis, head of coffee research and plant resources at Kew, told AFP.

“What we are saying is that in the long term if we don’t act now to preserve those key resources we don’t have a very bright future for coffee farming.”

Davis and his team focused their research on Ethiopia. People in this country, along with South Sudan, have been harvesting arabica (Coffea arabica) for millennia, and have also been cultivating it for centuries. Today, arabica makes up around 60% to 70% of all coffee sales worldwide, with robusta (C. canephora) filling up the rest.

The team used computer modeling techniques to analyze climate data for Ethiopia over the last four decades. Working with these models, they were able to measure how quickly deforestation, drought, and disease are eroding coffee’s natural habitat. All in all, they report, 75 coffee species are threatened with extinction. Of that number, 13 species have been classed as critically endangered, 40 as endangered, and 22 as vulnerable.

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“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,” Davis explains.

“It’s up there with the most endangered plant groups.”

While those 75 species don’t make it into your cup every morning, they are an important buffer. Genetic diversity is a crucial ingredient for a species’ survival in nature. Furthermore, wild plant variations act as a vital repository of genes that farmers can draw on to buttress their crops. This practice can be traced back several centuries in the case of Ethiopian arabica coffee, the team explains.

Given the sensitivity of this plant to climate change, disease, and pests, we will probably need to draw on this technique once again.

Still, not all is lost. The team says that if we act quickly enough to expand and protect the plant’s natural habitat, we should be able to keep these wild species of coffee around.

“Many protected areas fail to conserve the diversity encompassed within their borders, and workable management plans would be required to ensure that target species are effectively conserved,” the authors write.

We’re not facing a shortage of coffee right now, but scarcity is quite possible in the near future. A report commissioned by Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand in 2016 predicted that in the near future, coffee production could fall by as much as 50% due to climatic changes.

The paper “High extinction risk for wild coffee species and implications for coffee sector sustainability” has been published in the journal Science Advances.