Massively oscillating and raising temperatures as well as changing rainfall patterns affect plant growth. Climate change is thus directly impacting coffee growth and global coffee yield. To make things worse, the “immune system” of plants is also affected rendering them more vulnerable to diseases.
It began to show at significant scale around 2000, when first losses due to a fungal disease, now referred to as “coffee leaf rust”, were reported. It was first Africa, then Asia and now the Americas. For instance, the Central American coffee rust outbreak in the 2011 season affected more than 50% of coffee farms. This resulted in almost 2 million jobs lost and a massive £bn income loss.
With climate change and resulting diseases escalating, wild coffee species are an important source for preserving the world’s coffee supply. It comes with serious scientific challenges since we can only rely on two major coffee types, each with their own quirks: Arabica coffee only grows in specific geographies and Robusta coffee, whilst resistant to leaf rust, is vulnerable to many other diseases. Notwithstanding this, Robusta varieties have been used to developing resistance to coffee leaf rust in Arabica varieties through cross breeding.
Above approach however requires wild coffee species to thrive. Sadly, a recent study led Moving Bean’s neighbours, the UK’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, found that over 60% of coffee species are now threatened with extinction.
And coffee species are particularly vulnerable to extinction because they grow in very limited geographic regions. To make things worse, wild coffee species are in steep decline caused by re-purposing of land or overharvesting of the coffee plant. Similar to the animal world, a number of wild coffee relatives have not been seen for decades. We sadly conclude they might be extinct.
The Kew study shows that the sustainability of coffee depends on conservation of these species where they grow, i.e. in protected areas and working with communities throughout their native distribution in the Americas, Asia and Africa.
Conserving genetic diversity should thus be included in current approaches for sustainable coffee production, such as Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance certifications. This protection of the ecosystem ensures the viability of the ecosystem and the livelihoods of people from the bean in the fields to coffee cup enjoyed.