More Than Half of Wild Coffee Species Could Go Extinct, and It’s Our Fault

Photo: AP

If you’re a coffee aficionado, brace yourself because I’ve got some bad news for you.

About 60 percent of the 124 wild coffee species worldwide are threatened with extinction, according to a new study published in Science Advances Wednesday. While the list only includes one of the roughly five coffee species used commercially around the globe—Arabica—the finding nevertheless bodes poorly for your morning cup o’ joe in the age of climate change.

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Arabica coffee fruits, southwest Ethiopia.
Photo: Aaron Davis (Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew)

That’s because the unique genetic makeup of wild coffee species—which are threatened by habitat loss, their isolation in a single geographic location, or the timber industry—could help researchers develop coffee crops that are resilient to a warmer or drier climate. The paper calls out one wild species, for instance, that was used to develop crops more resistant to leaf rust.

“We’ve gone back to the wild, so to speak, and used wild species and wild diversity to make the coffee production part of the coffee sector sustainable,” said Aaron Davis, a co-author of the study and a senior research leader at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London. “What we’re drinking is already influenced by wild coffee species.”

The paper splits up wild coffee species into different categories based on how likely the species are to be used in developing new crops. The first group, made up of the farmed and wild variants of coffee species we drink, has just one threatened species. The second group, which holds 38 species including all the African species scientists would likely turn to when the climate makes it harder for the coffee we grow now to thrive, sees 61 percent of its species threatened. Group No. 3 contains 82 species, including all those in Madagascar, Comoros Islands, and the Mascarene Islands. 62 percent of these are threatened.

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Aaron Davis undertaking research on Arabica coffee in South Sudan.
Photo: Emma Sage

The study relies on data that already exists to determine how coffee’s doing. That includes observations in the wild from the past two decades and dried samples that have been collected over the last 250 years, Davis explained. The researchers determined how likely a species was to go extinct using IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria, which includes population trends, habitat suitability, and where the species lives.

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What’s alarming about all this is that many coffee species don’t live in wild protected areas (like national parks or forest reserves) or in living collections like at Kew. About 30 percent of these wild coffee species have no protections in the wild. And nearly half don’t sit within any collections.

“Current methods for preserving species so that they don’t go extinct are inadequate,” Davis told Earther. “We need to really step up our efforts to preserve wild coffee species and indeed many other important plant species.”

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Coffee is tough because it can’t be preserved in the giant freezers traditionally used to store seeds or specimens. They need “ultra-cold temperatures,” as Davis put it. That means liquid nitrogen to freeze them by cryopreservation.

Our favorite morning medicine still has a chance, but conservationists need to act fast to save wild species. This team didn’t get a chance to look at all these plants up close and personal, but on-the-ground assessments will be key in analyzing the severity of the problem moving forward. Some of the species that lacked sufficient data could already be extinct. No one knows for sure.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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