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Major study warns 60% of wild coffee species face extinction

New research from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, issues stark warning that governments and the global coffee industry must act to reverse imminent loss of coffee diversity, with coffee producers in developing countries, such as Ethiopia, already bearing the brunt of climate change

The Yayu Forest  (in backround) in south-west Ethiopia, one of the most important refuges for wild Arabica coffee. Image: Emily Garthwaite

A major study conducted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has warned 60% of the world’s wild coffee species face extinction due to a lethal cocktail of deforestation, climate change, and the spread of fungal pathogens and pests. The findings, published in research journals, Science Advances and Global Change Biology, are the culmination of more than two-decades’ research at the UK-based scientific organisation.

The stark assessment covers all 124 coffee species, including Coffea arabica, the staple of premium and specialty coffee around the world, which is now classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The paper also highlighted potentially devastating ramifications for global coffee production as endangered wild species could hold the key to future resistance to diseases such as leaf rust.

Beans of threatened coffee species Ambongo coffee (left), and Arabica coffee (right) Madagascar. Image: RBG, Kew

Scientists at Kew called on the coffee industry safeguard its future by doing more to protect coffee diversity. It added that ‘appropriate intervention’, such as assisted migration, forest preservation and regeneration, could make a substantial difference in ameliorating the effects of climate change. In Ethiopia, one of the only countries in the world where arabica coffee grows in the wild, the natural population could be reduced by 50% or more by 2088 due to climate change alone.

“Among the coffee species threatened with extinction are those that have potential to be used to breed and develop the coffees of the future, including those resistant to disease and capable of withstanding worsening climatic conditions. The use and development of wild coffee resources could be key to the long-term sustainability of the coffee sector. Targeted action is urgently required in specific tropical countries, particularly in Africa, to protect the future of coffee” said Dr Aaron Davis, Head of Coffee Research at Kew and lead author of the Science Advances paper.

“We hope this new data will highlight species to be prioritised for the sustainability of the coffee production sector so that appropriate action can be taken to safeguard their future,” said Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha, Senior Research Leader in Kew’s Conservation Department and lead scientist for Kew’s Plant Assessment Unit.


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