Work by scientists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has found that more than half of wild coffee species are at risk of extinction and that conservation measures are inadequate.
For the first time, scientists at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, have carried out an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species assessment for all 124 coffee species. The implications of these findings, published in leading research journals Science Advances and Global Change Biology, paint a picture of concern for the long-term future of global coffee production.
The newly published research reveals that 60% of all wild coffee species are under threat of extinction due to deforestation, climate change, and the spread and increasing severity of fungal pathogens and pests. This includes the wild relative of Coffea arabica, the world’s most widely traded coffee, which has entered the IUCN Red List as an Endangered species, largely due to climate change projections.
The new figures come after two decades of dedicated research undertaken by Kew to discover, analyse and document the world’s coffee species, and assess their extinction risk. Much of this work was undertaken first-hand in the wild locations where coffee grows, mainly in the remote forests of Africa and on the island of Madagascar.
In 2012, Kew researchers and in-country collaborators revealed a bleak picture for wild Arabica. Using computer modelling they were able to project how a changing climate would affect the species in Ethiopia, showing that the number of locations where Arabica grows could decrease by as much as 85% by 2080.
In 2017, the Kew-Ethiopia team turned its attention to the influence of climate change on coffee farming, showing that up to 60% of the land used for Ethiopia’s coffee production could become unsuitable for use by the end of the century. This recent work continues Kew’s long-standing research on wild coffee species, which dates back to the mid-1800s.
The results of the research published in mid-January 2019, showing that 60% of all coffee species are threatened with extinction, is an extremely concerning outcome.
The multi-billion-dollar coffee sector is founded on, and has been sustained through, the use of wild coffee species. Included among the 60% under threat of extinction are those that could be key to the future of coffee production. The global coffee trade currently relies on only two species – Arabica and Robusta – but given the myriad of emerging and worsening threats to coffee farming globally, other coffee species are likely to be required for coffee crop plant development.
Dr Aaron Davis, Head of Coffee Research at Kew and lead author of the Science Advances paper, said, “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.
“We hope our findings will be used to influence the work of scientists, policy makers and coffee sector stakeholders to secure the future of coffee production — not only for coffee lovers around the world, but also as a source of income for farming communities in some of the most impoverished places in the world.”
Dr Eimear Nic Lughadha, Senior Research Leader in Kew’s Conservation Department and lead scientist for Kew’s Plant Assessment Unit which co-ordinates extinction risk assessments for > 1,000 species a year said, “This is the first time an IUCN Red List assessment has been carried out to find the extinction risk of the world’s coffee, and the results are worrying.
“A figure of 60% of all coffee species threatened with extinction is extremely high, especially when you compare this to a global estimate of 22% for plants. Some of the coffee species assessed have not been seen in the wild for more than 100 years, and it is possible that some may already be extinct. 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.”
Dr Justin Moat, Head of Spatial Analysis at Kew and one of the authors of the paper, says: “Our initial evaluation of Arabica coffee suggested that it was not threatened with extinction in the wild. However, after factoring in climate change, it moved upwards by two categories to become an endangered species. These findings are so important as they indicate that the extinction risk to many other coffee species could be much worse if we consider climate change.”