Grounds for Concern

27 February 2019 By Laura Dunn

Start savoring your morning cups of coffee. Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal, published a study in January 2019 claiming that about 60 percent of the world’s wild coffee species are at high risk of extinction, including Arabica and Robusta coffee species. The study also reveals that 75 wild coffee species are considered threatened with extinction — this is one of the highest recorded threat rates for a plant species, according to USA Today.

The study reveals that this development is due to several factors, like droughts and the spread of fungal pathogens as global temperatures rise. Humans aren’t above reproach either — the more we contribute to deforestation and other kinds of human encroachments, the more possible it could be that coffee shops become a thing of the past.

According to Dr. Aaron Davis, the study’s lead author and head of coffee research at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, some coffee species could become extinct in 10 to 20 years. “In many places, coffee farming is a major cause of deforestation,” says Davis. “Whilst not necessarily affecting wild coffee species, this is certainly causing significant losses in forest cover and biodiversity (wildlife).” He says it’s important that improvements be made to improve the labeling of coffee products, “so that consumers are fully aware of the impact of their purchasing choices, good and bad.”

Furthermore, coffee prices need to change. “Over the last two years, coffee prices have been unsustainably low,” Davis maintains. He says that coffee farmers need to be paid fair and sustainable prices for their coffee. “Recently, low coffee prices have pushed many farmers into low or negative profitability. Coffee farmers around the world are in many cases the guardians of cultivated coffee’s sensory diversity for Arabica and Robusta coffee,” he says.

He warns that if prices remain low for too long, some farmers will eventually stop growing coffee, and we will lose much of what makes coffee special. “Indeed, due to market forces and possibly climate change, we have already lost some sensory — taste and smell/aroma — diversity in Ethiopia.” Since climate change is an active part of the problem, “It is entirely possible that some species may go extinct in the short-term,” Davis says. “We need to take action on these species as soon as possible, so that the threats — mostly deforestation — can be addressed and effective conservation measures put in place.

“However, even if we eliminate deforestation in these areas, we still have to contend with climate change. Most coffee species exist and grow under very specific environmental conditions. If climate change continues, those environmental conditions will be altered to the extent that the species will no longer be able to exist there,” Davis says. “This is a particular issue if the species occurs in a restricted area, such as a small remnant forest patch, because it has nowhere to go (e.g., it can’t move to higher and cooler elevations in response to a changing climate).”

So how did we get here? “Clearance (or loss) and disturbance of natural environments, particularly forest, in tropical Africa, Madagascar, Asia, and Australasia are the main cause of the high extinction risk for wild coffee species,” says Davis. “Habitat alteration has mainly been driven by the requirement for agriculture and human settlement.” He says this is a particular problem for coffee because many species live exclusively in healthy forests and woodlands (i.e., in pristine or only partially disturbed condition).

Additionally, many wild coffee species have small distributions — the area in which the plants grow is very small and restricted and these areas are usually few. In some cases, there are species found in only a single locality. “Coffee species are never common and are very rarely widespread,” says Davis. “The negative influence of clearance and alteration of natural habitats…on species with small or narrow distributions/ranges is likely to be compounded by climate change.”

One of the ways we can help halt the coffee extinction danger is to be more responsible consumers. “Where possible, consumers should try to buy coffee from sources that are not the cause of habitat destruction, and if possible one that benefits the environment, including those that prevent deforestation, such as much of the coffee from Ethiopia, which is mostly grown in association with natural forest,” Davis says.

So, for those who think life starts after coffee, it’s time to do your part to keep your favorite kinds of coffee around as long as possible. Drink responsibly.