In 2012, research scientists warned that wild Arabica coffee could be extinct by the year 2080.
The bleak message was delivered in a paper written by scientists at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Ethiopia’s Environment and Coffee Forest Forum. It confirmed climate change as an overwhelming threat to the sites where wild Arabica grows and predicted that the best case (but most unlikely) scenario is a 38% reduction in localities suitable for growing this important species.
The most probable outcome? A massive 65-99.7% loss of growing sites. That’s without taking account of the widespread deforestation in the highlands of South Sudan and Ethiopia.
The Key to Sustainable Coffee
It’s unlikely that any of the Arabica you drink in your daily brew comes from the wild. According to ethical coffee supplier Honest Coffees, almost all commercially traded coffee is grown in cooperatives.
But the importance of wild Arabica goes way beyond the here and now: it’s the key to the variety’s future. Cultivated coffee doesn’t have enough genetic diversity necessary to cope with attacks from diseases and pests, a diversity which is found only in wild populations.
Think of wild Arabica as a reservoir of genetic flexibility, allowing farmers to re-engineer plantation coffee if necessary. But don’t imagine this is a theoretical scenario – in 2013, a bad case of the coffee leaf rust fungus caused a 20% drop in Central American coffee production.
Pestilence is only one threat faced by cultivated coffee. Over the coming decades, climate change will also affect plantations in the major coffee-producing countries.
Safeguarding Coffee’s Future
Because Ethiopia is the ancestral home of Arabica coffee, that’s the only place you’ll find truly genetically diverse coffee plants. No wild Ethiopian Arabica, no sustainable coffee.
That’s why it makes sense to concentrate the majority of coffee conservation efforts on Ethiopia. This is exactly what the teams in London and Addis Ababa did between 2013 and 2015.
As part of a project funded by the UK, Denmark and Norway, scientists traveled to the places where wild Ethiopian Arabica grows. Their first aim was to find out whether coffee plants were already affected by climate change.
What they saw wasn’t encouraging: highland areas were already experiencing higher temperatures than normal, and the coffee plants they examined showed signs of heat stress and pest infestation.
Their second task was to predict the areas of Ethiopia that are likely to provide a suitable refuge for wild Arabica in the years to come. On a more optimistic note, the research team concluded that many high-altitude areas currently unsuitable for wild coffee could become more hospitable as climate change intensifies.
On the whole, this undertaking was a success. By the time the project was wound up in 2015, it had produced helpful data that can be used to conserve wild Arabica.
Is Our Daily Cup of Coffee Still Under Threat?
Things are looking up, but the fate of coffee is still at risk. If enough populations of wild Arabica can be transplanted to higher ground, we can at least be sure of some kind of future for our favorite drink.
But the future of the coffee industry as a whole looks more complicated. Not every coffee-producing country will be able to shift whole plantations to higher altitudes, and we can expect coffee farms of the future to be less productive than those of today.
That’s why sustainable coffee is something everybody needs to be aware of. As consumers, we have power, and our choices will impact upon the survival of this amazing plant.
And on whether or not future generations get to enjoy a daily cup of Joe. So make the right choices.