Six in 10 wild coffee species endangered by habitat loss
17 January 2019 | Mitigation
Wild coffee species are under threat, with 60% of them facing possible extinction, including Arabica, the original of the world’s most popular form of coffee, researchers say.
Most coffee species are found in the forests of Africa and Madagascar. They are threatened by climate change and the loss of natural habitat, as well as by the spread of diseases and pests.
While cultivated coffee is thriving, making up a hugely profitable business globally, the health of those species will also be affected by climate change.
In Ethiopia the number of locations where Arabica grows could be reduced by as much as 85% by 2080, and up to 60% of the land used for Ethiopia’s coffee production could become unsuitable by the end of the century, say scientists.
Ethiopia is Africa’s biggest coffee exporter, exporting $1bn worth of the crop annually. About 15 million people in the country work in coffee production. Wild Arabica coffee, which is native to the region, is an important seed stock for coffee farming and is also harvested for commercial coffee production, so threats to it could have a damaging economic impact on the country.
Commercial coffee on a global scale will also be affected if wild species die out, as those plants could hold the key to cross-breeding coffee varieties more resilient to the effects of climate change and possibly resistant to certain pests and diseases.
The scientists, from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, published their research on Wednesday in the journals Science Advances and Global Change Biology. The analysis was based on their examination of the 124 known coffee species, and an assessment was produced for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which publishes the global Red List of threatened species. Due to this discovery, the wild relative of Coffea arabica is now classed as endangered.
Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Kew and lead author of the Science Advances paper, 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.”
There are ways to try to improve the prospects for wild coffee and commercial coffee production, including preventing deforestation and encouraging reforestation, and research into coffee varieties and the diseases and pests afflicting them.
Davis said it was vital better effort was made to conserve coffee species in the wild, such as through improved management and designation of protected areas, such as nature reserves, as well as new protected areas for wild coffee species.
He said that in Ethiopia there was already a scheme for protected areas for the conservation of wild Arabica coffee.
Davis also called for renewed focus on germplasm collections, such as living collections and seed banks so that these could be made effective and sustainable for the long-term. He called too for better labelling of coffee products so consumers could become aware of the impact of their purchasing choices. “At the moment there are lots of different types of certification but very few cover forest preservation and none detail their negative environmental impact,” he said.
Prices might also need to rise, he suggested, because for the past two years farmers had been pushed into loss through slim rewards. “Coffee farmers around the world are in many cases the guardians of cultivated coffee’s sensory diversity,” he said. “If prices remain low for too long some farmers will eventually stop growing coffee and we will lose much of what makes coffee special.”
Eimear Nic Lughadha, senior research leader in Kew’s conservation department, said that some species could be already extinct. “A figure of 60% of all coffee species threatened with extinction is extremely high, especially when you compare this to a global estimate of 22% for plants,” she said.
Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the IUCN Red List unit, said: “The climate change impacts on Arabica coffee raise serious environmental, economic and social concerns, particularly for the millions of smallholder farmers that rely on this crop for their livelihood. The numerous wild relatives of commercially grown crops such as Arabica coffee are essential to ensure the resilience of cultivated coffee in the face of climate change and other threats.”
The research also threw up another fascinating finding. A species of coffee known for its exquisite flavour, Coffea stenophylla, also known as the “highland coffee” of Sierra Leone, had been unseen in the wild by collectors since 1954. But the researchers managed last December to locate first a single plant then a few others, reached by walking for hours through dense forest to an isolated hilltop.
However, the scientists reported that the area was under threat from deforestation and human encroachment, meaning that even this rediscovered plant might now not last long.
Source: The Guardian