Since life began on this planet, 99 percent of all the species that ever existed have gone extinct. If you read your Darwin at all, you know it’s part of the deal. There have been at least five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, and many scientists believe the man-made climate change the right wing is so busy denying might have kicked off a sixth great die-off of species. That includes the coffee plant. Yes, the coffee plant may be extinct this century.
OK, that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration, but only a small one. There are 124 different kinds of coffee plant, but the coffee most of you drink (I imbibe tea by preference) comes from either the Arabica or Robusta varieties. Robusta makes up 30 percent of the coffee consumed, and it’s pretty tough to swallow — it’s used mainly in instant coffee. The rest comes from Arabica plants. Wild Arabica coffee grows only in southern Ethiopia, on either side of the Rift Valley, and on the Boma plateau in South Sudan.
Research by a team from the U.K.’s Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew (suburban London for those of you who wonder) developed a computer model to predict how environmental changes would affect Arabica for the rest of the century. They forecast that the number of locations where wild Arabica coffee grows could decrease by 85 percent by 2080 — the worst-case outcome was a 99.7 percent reduction. It’s a fragile plant that grows within a narrow range of temperatures, moistures and soils.
“If we don’t do anything now and over the next 20 years, by end of the century, wild Arabica in Ethiopia could be extinct — that’s in the worst-case scenario,” Dr. Aaron Davis told the BBC. Davis, who led the project, is head of coffee research at Kew.
Wait a minute, there are coffee plantations all over the world. Juan Valdez and his burro don’t operate out of Ethiopia. What gives?
“Wild species have much greater genetic diversity — anything happening in the wild populations is usually amplified in commercial varieties where the genetic diversity is so much less,” said Justin Moat, Kew’s head of spatial analysis.
DNA sequencing has shown that commercial coffee has about 10 percent of the genetic diversity of wild Arabica. Dr. Timothy Schilling, executive director of the World Coffee Research institute, said in the BBC report that “we don’t have the diversity in available Arabica coffees that we need for the next 200 years.”
Basically, commercial coffee is severely inbred, and that makes it susceptible to disease. Coffee leaf rust has devastated crops since the 1880s. How bad is it? It does for coffee what small pox does for people. In 2013, there was an outbreak in Central America. The coffee grown there had no resistance to the disease. Only plants at altitude survived because the fungus couldn’t handle the cool, dry conditions.
Now, I live with a woman who needs two cups of coffee before she’ll get up and face the world. And there are people out there with worse coffee addictions than hers. You know who you are, and you know how unpleasant you can be without your daily fix. So we need a Manhattan Project solution to this now.
One of the things we can do is move the coffee plants higher up. It’s cooler in the highlands (which the Scottish Tourist Board should totally steal as a new slogan). Places where coffee won’t grow now might be able to support a crop in the future. However, it takes four years for a plant to mature and grow beans, so a shortage is almost inevitable in the transition.
We could enhance the genetic diversity of the Arabica plants. Dr. Schilling has that happening. “What we aim to do is to get a bunch of highly diverse C eugenioides and C canephora and cross them, to recreate C arabica but better — more diverse.” He then added that it will take DECADES.
What about the other 122 kinds of coffee plant? “Most wild coffee species either don’t taste very good or produce small crops, although there are some species that could have potential, either as crops themselves or as part of breeding programmes,” said Kew’s Davis. “But this won’t happen overnight.”
Liberica is one variety that might work out. They tried this in Sri Lanka in the 1880s after coffee leaf rust killed off the Arabica plants on the island. “They start off saying it is great coffee. Then, five years later: ‘Well, it will be good for the U.S. market, they like strong coffee,’ to ‘Will anybody drink this coffee?'” Davis said, adding, “Liberica is a strong grower and a prolific cropper but it just doesn’t taste very good, and for many tastes a bit like vegetable soup.”
So, coffee lovers, I wish you the best of luck — kettle’s just boiled, and I have a date with a pot of Chinese pu’er tea. You might want to acquire the taste sooner rather than later.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.