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60% of wild coffees ‘face extinction’

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At least 60% of wild coffees are threatened with extinction due to loss of forests and climate change, scientists have warned.

The worsening problem of fungal disease and pests is also behind the problem affecting 75 of the 124 types of wild coffee.

Those threatened include the species behind one of the world’s most popular beverages, researchers at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew have found.

Wild Arabica, a species from Ethiopia, has been cultivated to provide 60% of the multibillion-pound global trade in coffee.

It is now assessed as being endangered largely as a result of climate change.

Wild coffee crops are thought to support the livelihoods of 100 million people in farming alone.

Agriculture and other human activities are affecting their populations, as well as rising temperatures which alter the specific climatic conditions they need to thrive in.

The threats facing wild coffee are significant for the future of the coffee we drink, because such varieties have been used to breed and improve the cultivated stock over the years, scientists said.


Coffee farmers pile beans in Ethiopia
Image:
Coffee farmers pile beans in Ethiopia


Coffee farmers who grow either Arabica or Robusta coffee have already begun to report their crops being affected by changing weather patterns, rising temperatures and new pests and diseases.

The variety of traits found in wild species are likely to be even more important in the future to develop plants that can cope with threats, such as longer dry seasons caused by climate change.

Kew’s head of coffee research Dr Aaron Davis warned: “If you start to lose these species the options for developing resilient coffee for the future diminishes very rapidly.”

Less than half of the wild coffee species are held in seed banks or living plant collections and more than a quarter (28%) are not known to occur in any protected areas, the scientists warn.

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

In a study published in Science Advances, researchers assessed the species against the extinction risk criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

A worker picks coffee beans on his family farm in Brazil
Image:
A worker picks coffee beans on his family farm in Brazil

They found 75 species (60%) were considered to be threatened with extinction, with 13 species in the most at-risk category of critically endangered. Some 40 are endangered and another 22 vulnerable to extinction.

The level of risk for coffee is much higher than for plants as a whole, with an estimated 22% of plant species worldwide threatened with extinction.

Dr Davis said: “What we’re saying is 60% is just really high, that’s a real wake-up call. For a major global commodity, that starts ringing alarm bells.

“It’s a tragedy losing any wild species, whether it’s a bird or plant or animal, that’s bad enough.

“But when you’ve got a crop that supports the livelihoods of 100 million people just in production in coffee farming, then you look at value of high street coffee chains and supermarket coffee, it’s enormous.”

A second study from Kew, published in Global Change Biology, looked specifically at wild Arabica, the source of a crop with an export value of $13.8bn (£10.7bn) between 2015 and 2016.

It found that when climate change was taken into consideration, wild Arabica, which is only found in the humid forests of Ethiopia and a small area of South Sudan, moves from being classed as “not threatened” to “endangered”.

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