Many coffee species threatened with extinction, Study

Christopher Davidson
January 20, 2019

Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Kew, who co-led the work, said that among coffee species threatened with extinction are some that could be used to breed and develop the coffees of the future, including some that have resistance to disease and that can withstand worsening climate conditions.

"Overall, the fact that the extinction risk across all coffee species was so high - almost 60 per cent - that's way above normal extinction risk figures for plants", Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Kew, told AFP.

Researchers say the multi-billion-dollar coffee sector is founded on and sustained through the use of wild coffee species, and that included among the 60 per cent are those that could be key to the future of coffee production. The changing climate may also be leaving plants more vulnerable to disease.

"As a coffee drinker you don't need to worry in the short term", he said.

"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.

The research was conducted with guidelines from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the organization that publishes the global red list of threatened species.

They called for increased conservation in the natural environment as well as in seed banks and plant collections, and urged support for the African countries where most wild species are found to help them protect their coffee resources.

Harvested coffee beans at a coffee plantation in Ciudad Vieja, Guatemala.

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"Given the importance of Arabica coffee to Ethiopia, and the world, we need to do our utmost to understand the risks facing its survival".

Coffee species are notoriously hard to conserve for a variety of reasons, says Sarada Krishnan, director of horticulture and the Center for Global Initiatives at the Denver Botanic Gardens who was not involved in the study.

Most popular coffee blends derive from either the Arabica or Robusta bean, but as Somini Sengupta explains for The New York Times, these strains are just two of the world's 124 wild coffee species.

Global coffee production now relies on just two species: arabica and robusta. A study published today in Science Advances asserts that a majority of the world's wild coffee species are at risk of extinction.

A 2016 report by The Climate Institute found worldwide coffee production could be cut in half by 2050.

It had not been seen in the wild since 1954, and has all but vanished from coffee plantations and botanic gardens. "As we lose those coffees, our options diminish".

What are crop wild relatives? A report published a year ago by Crop Trust found relatively few coffee plants maintained in gene banks around the world. Even if scientists can boost the percentage of coffee seeds stored in seed banks, The Conversation's Moolna points out that these samples don't hold up in storage as well as crops such as wheat or maize.

"The challenge will be to get ones that can make coffee that we like to drink", Professor Henry said.

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