The land before coffee: what will happen when the world’s most popular coffee species go extinct?
Around 60% of wild coffee species are expected to become extinct according to a study published in the journal Science Advances this January. With some species expected to disappear in just a couple of decades, Deborah Williams asks what is behind the extinction and what is being done to prevent it.
As one of the world’s favourite and most consumed beverages, coffee plays an important role in fuelling each day for caffeine-reliant brewers everywhere. Currently, the global coffee market is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5% during the forecast period of 2019-2024, according to Mordor Intelligence’s report Coffee Market – Growth, Trends and Forecasts (2019-2024). In the UK alone, some 95 million cups are consumed every day, while globally that number is over two billion per day.
However, the future of coffee could be at risk as around 60% of the world's wild coffee species could become extinct, according to research published in Science Advances.
“We are very worried,” said Michael Mamo, managing director at Ethiopia-based Addis Exporter. “Especially in a country like Ethiopia where coffee productions, directly and indirectly, impacts millions of Ethiopians.”
As the largest coffee producer in Africa and fifth largest producer in the world, Ethiopian coffee accounts for 4.2% of the global coffee production, according to Mordor’s report Ethiopia Coffee Market – Growth, Trends and Forecasts (2017-2022).
“This [coffee extinction] is indeed of great concern," explains Pascale Schuit, sustainability manager at Union Hand-Roasted Coffee. "From our collaborative work in Ethiopia with Dr Aaron Davis, from Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew [author of the study in Science Advances], we already knew the extinction of wild coffee species was a significant issue. Sixty percent is a very worrying number."
Coffee extinction: getting down to the dregs
There are 124 wild coffee species in the world – predominately grown in Madagascar and Africa, but also in parts of Asia. One of the world’s most commercially grown species is Arabica (Coffea arabica); originating in Ethiopia, this species represents around 70% of global coffee production, with Robusta (Coffea canephora) representing the rest. Fragrant and sweet with a round taste and subtle hint of bitterness, Arabica is a favourite with most coffee aficionados.
However, global warming and deforestation is causing difficulties for this coffee favourite. According to CoffeeResearch.org, the growth of the species is dependent on dry and rainy seasons, and a year-round temperature of 16-24°C. Yet cultivating the right environment is proving hard for coffee experts, with many understanding in the years to come they may have fewer genetic options to adapt Arabica plants.
Our best hope for sustaining the supply of high-quality coffee is to focus on making the coffee plant more resilient
Schuit explains: “Union sources and roasts only Arabica coffee. In the past years we have also supported the work of World Coffee Research, which has begun a breeding programme to create hybrid Arabicas best suited to the changing needs and challenges of the 21st Century. Many believe that our best hope for sustaining the supply of high-quality coffee in the 21st Century is to focus on making the coffee plant more resilient.
“The creation of new, highly adaptable coffees, supported by a vibrant new seed sector, will result in major global productivity and quality gains in the next 10-20 years. This research requires breeding material that has the correct characteristics. It is worrying that the viable genetic material might be hidden in the 60% that is likely to disappear.”
Leaving a bitter taste: what will be the impact if these species go extinct?
According to the International Coffee Organisation, from the twelve months ending March 2019, exports of Arabica totalled 79.51 million bags compared to 75.9 million bags last year.
From coffee farmers to commercial coffee retailers, the extinction of Arabica coffee will affect every granule of the coffee industry – particularly in Ethiopia. Coffee exporting is the biggest earner of foreign exchange there, which is needed for the country's continued developent, including infrastructure and healthcare, ultimately affecting the livelihoods of millions of people.
As well as affecting coffee farmers, the extinction of coffee species could also cause a declinde in commercial coffee sales, affecting producers and outlets from major chains down to independent coffee shops.
Filtering the issues: how can we stop the extinction of coffee?
With some coffee species predicted to become extinct within the next 10-20 years, many coffee extinction preventions have already been created.
“The Ethiopian government and different donors such as USAID all run projects that provide training for farmers and stakeholders on the importance of conservation and best practices,” explains Mamo.
“To stop the reduction or extinction of coffee, the coffee business has to be profitable. Currently, most farmers are unable to cover their cost of production. Areas that historically produced amazing coffee are uprooting their coffee trees – either planting another crop or totally changing to a different field.”
In Ethiopia, the coffee industry is mostly experiencing changes in its harvest cycle, coffee profiles, and production – particularly in lower altitude areas. However, Mamo points out that, fortunately, most Ethiopian coffees are grown in the highlands, reducing this impact. In its contribution to stopping coffee extinction, Addis Exporter is currently working with farmers – providing training on cultivating the best coffee practices, such as pruning, stumping, planning need trees and, most importantly, not cutting down trees.
At Yayu, coffee generates up to 70% of the cash income for over 90% of the population
It is clear to see that the protection of forests is critical in combatting coffee extinction, with companies such as Union working closely with small scale farmers who live in primary forests. Its philosophy, as stated by Schuit, is that small scale farmers should be paid a fair price that covers the cost of production, including activities that make coffee more sustainable – whether economically, environmentally or socially – with the ultimate aim to reduce deforestation.
“[Our] farmers earn [a] sufficient [amount] from coffee production and do not have to cut the primary forestland to plant monoculture crops to supplement their income. We have seen a 25% increase in the income of coffee farmers near Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve, in Ethiopia.
“At Yayu, coffee generates up to 70% of the cash income for over 90% of the population. [Union’s project there] aims to reduce poverty, reduce land-use change and conversion, preserve biodiversity (particularly critical wild genetic resources for Arabica coffee), and minimise farmer’s vulnerability to climate perturbations.”
Whilst many industry experts are doing all they can to stop coffee extinction, there is currently no fool proof way to do so. But with some preventative measures already in place, every coffee lover out there needs to do their part to help save those beloved beans – the future of every overpriced cappuccino depends on it.