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Is Coffee Really Going Extinct?

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A new paper finds a high extinction risk for coffee species.

coffee beans in a sac
coffee beans in a sac

“The world’s most popular coffee species are going extinct. And scientists say we are to blame,” reads the first sentence of a CNN article

That article, along with many others, is a report on new study from researchers at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, one of the world’s biggest and most important botanical research facilities. Most of the coverage of the study emphasizes one number: 60 per cent of all coffee species are threatened with extinction.

That number needs context. The idea that coffee may go extinct, that there may be no coffee or that it will become rare ,more expensive and even taste bad, is not really likely, but neither is the study something we should just brush off. Effectively this is one in a long line of studies and surveys showing how macro forces—climate change, deforestation, pollution—will affect this very important crop.

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The Coffea genus, which comprises the fruiting shrubs that give us coffee, is more diverse than most realize. Coffee dorks will doubtless be familiar with the two most important species economically (C. robusta and C. arabica), but not the 120 or so others found in tropical Africa, the islands of the Indian Ocean, and parts of Asia and Oceania. The vast majority of these are not grown on any real commercial scale; many are used locally.Most of these are not cultivated, they are usually found in the wild.

coffee beans
Coffee beans

As with many plants restricted to a certain climate—as in the case of wine grapes and even chocolate—climate change has a potential devastating effect for many Coffea species. Deforestation is a major destructive force in much of the tropics, thanks to growing development, slash-and-burn agriculture, and the booming oil industry, over population among other causes, and here, too, Coffea is at risk. Many Coffea species—not robusta or arabica, but the lesser-known ones—are also limited to small, sometimes isolated populations, where a single event can simply and easily, wipe out the entire species. They require forested areas, are not especially adaptable, and require healthy habitats. This is all bad news for the survival of a species.

But the study here is limited to wild Coffea species. Wild coffee is certainly important economically as a whole, but the vast majority of arabica and robusta, which make up almost the entire market, are farmed. These are not going extinct.Its the lesser breeds we should indeed be worried about.

This is not to say, that since they are less,there won’t be any consequence for their extinction of a dozen species of plants. The basics of any extinction hold true for Coffea: it plays a vital role in its ecosystem, in this case providing fruit for animals in addition to shade, protection against erosion, and all the other important things shrubs and trees do.

From an agriculture perspective, the researchers note that having a diversity of wild species is vital to the health of the coffee industry in order to keep the coffee makers in business. The wide variety of coffee plants gives room for cross-breeding  all sorts of desirable traits, from resistance to droughts to protection against certain pests or diseases.

Coffee, as a product, is not really in any immediate risk. But losing even these comparatively rare and unknown wild varieties could cause major problems for the coffee plant and coffee making industry down the road, causing an impedance to the coffee industry’s ability to react to the problems that pop up with any crop. And, of course, the basic point is an echo of a multitude of other studies: the whole planet is seriously at risk

AND WE NEED TO ACT…ACT FAST!

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