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Trouble brews as coffee faces extinction

Africa is the home of coffee. Beans from the continent have been picked as a snack for as long as humans have needed a quick hit of energy.

Ethiopian arabica beans found their way to Yemen 600 years ago. Coffee beans are now grown in 70 different countries along the equator. An infinite number of coffee shops distribute this to people across the world.

This natural fuel can legitimately claim to power modern society.

But its future is in doubt. New research from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom, warns that 60% of the world’s 124 coffee species are threatened with extinction.

This includes every species growing on continental Africa and on islands such as Madagascar. Only two of the 124 species — arabica (Cof fea arabica) and robusta (Cof fea canephora) — are used in coffee.

The research — High Extinction Risk for Wild Coffee Species and Implications for Coffee Sector Sustainability — came out this week in the journal Science Advances. To work out which species of coffee are under threat, the researchers applied the criteria used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Its Red List catalogues all known plant and animal species according to how endangered they are.

Despite coffee’s popularity, this has not been done before.

The biggest risk to coffee growing comes from deforestation, which clears the land for farming and for firewood, increasing temperatures and diseases. Coffee trees are particularly vulnerable to these changes because they grow in small numbers, mostly in forests, on a narrow strip along the equator.

The coffee industry in Ethiopia, where the arabica bean was first cultivated, has survived because farmers make money from selling their beans, which has given them an incentive to preserve the forests along the Rift Valley where arabica thrives.

But now people are cutting down these forests to make space for homes and farms.

This is a trend being repeated across the world, according to the Kew research.

The plant is also under threat from climate change and the higher temperatures, floods and extended droughts that it brings along the equator. Warming is happening at a rate faster than at any other time in history, and plants and animals are unable to evolve quickly enough to survive.

Arabica and robusta have evolved to thrive in a very small and specific environmental niche. In addition, the plants don’t do well when they are moved.

A further problem is diseases, that are quickly evolving to attack coffee plants. Because coffee plants grows in small numbers, it takes only one successful disease to wipe out an entire region’s crop. The researchers say that not enough plants exist to ensure genetic diversity when this happens.

The Kew researchers say they hope their warning gets growers and governments to focus on breeding and developing coffee that is resistant to disease and can withstand changes in the climate.

This is especially important because coffee is grown by small-scale farmers, in rural areas where there is little other industry.

Coffee facts

  • There are 124 species of coffee that are indigenous to tropical forests in Africa and on Madagascar and other islands in the Indian Ocean.
  • The bean is now grown in 70 countries, with a third of all beans coming from Brazil.
  • Worldwide, 100-million people grow coffee. Most of them are small-scale farmers.
  • Arabica makes up 60% of the coffee market. Ethiopia exports R14-billion worth of coffee each year, employing 15-million people in the country of 100-million.
  • The rest of the coffee market is made up of robusta (originally from equatorial forests in West and Central Africa)

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Sipho Kings
Sipho Kings is the acting editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian

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