The State of the World's Wild Coffee Supply Is "of Extreme Concern" 

There is no backup plan. 

Most of the coffee we drink on a daily basis is grown in massive coffee farms that are carefully overseen by humans tasked with protecting the crucial caffeine source. But there are about 124 varieties of wild coffee that face constant threats, say the authors of two new papers in Science Advances and Global Change Biology. Those wild varieties are crucial for protecting our domestic coffee stocks, which are currently under threat.

Aaron Davis, Ph.D., senior research leader of plant resources at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK and co-author on both studies, tells Inverse the majority of the world’s coffee supply depends on two species: Arabica and Robusta species, which are grown on farms all over the world. His earlier work indicated these two species are already at risk because of climate change, which is why he believes that wild coffee stocks will be necessary to someday replace them.

The problem is that these wild coffee stocks are increasingly hard to find. Davis saw that himself when he traveled to Sierra Leone in search of a wild coffee species called Coffea stenophylla, as shown in the video footage above.

Combing the country, Davis found only a handful of C. stenophylla samples but ample evidence that the areas where wild coffee stocks grow are disappearing — and they are taking the beans with them. He estimates that nearly 60 percent of the world’s coffee supplies are “at risk of extinction” due to climate change, fungal pathogens, or, as he saw in Sierra Leone, the erosion of their habitats.

coffee expedition
Davis in Sierra Leone, hunting for rare coffee species. 

Davis and his colleagues arrived at that number by applying the same guidelines the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) uses to place species on their Red List of Threatened Species. By doing this, Davis concluded that 75 of the world’s 124 wild coffee species (60 percent) are “threatened with extinction,” which encapsulates the three most dire categories in the IUCN’s hierarchy: “critically endangered,” “endangered,” and “vulnerable.”

Of the 75, Davis and his colleagues found that 13 coffee species were “critically endangered.” For perspective, another “critically endangered” species on the IUCN’s list is the Philippine Crocodile, of which IUCN estimates there are between 92 and 137 mature individuals left on Earth.

The 124 isolated wild coffee species, which are found in areas from Ethiopia to Madagascar, contain something that traditional supplies don’t: genetic diversity. If climate change or a fungal pathogen were to wipe out domestic breeds of coffee, there’s a chance that wild ones might possess genes that allow them to withstand higher heat or invasive fungal invaders. In the paper, Davis and his colleagues write that some wild coffee species are already known to contain traits like climatic tolerance, resistance to pests and disease, and drought tolerance.

Safeguarding that genetic diversity in the wild is important in itself. But if efforts to conserve the environment fail, there are germplasms — seedbanks all over the world that usually contain a sample of a plant or a seed that’s insulated from the outside world.

“Germplasm collections comprise living material, such as living collections (plants in a field) and seed banks (cryopreservation for coffee species), which is accessible for use and development,” Davis says. “It also provides a final safeguard should a species become extinct in the wild.”

coffee plants climate change
Yayu forest in Southwest Ethiopia, a preserve for Arabica coffee plants that are threatened by climate change. 

But unfortunately, he found that wild coffee species aren’t well represented, even in those worst-case-scenario collections. About 45 percent of wild species are absent from germplasms. For those at-risk species, there is no backup plan.

The outlook is pretty bleak for the world’s coffee. But Davis adds there are places that seem to be taking action on this front. Specifically, he mentions Ethiopia, which is home to the C. arabica species of coffee plant, which is “not threatened” by the IUCN criteria. But factoring in climate change, as the Global Change Biology paper does, the C. arabica population is expected to drop by 50 to 88 percent by 2088. Fortunately, in Ethiopia, there are protected areas like the Yayu Coffee Forest Biosphere Reserve, which became a UNESCO site in 2010. There, wild coffee plants are allowed to grow undisturbed.

“We can address this by taking action to preserve species in the wild, much better management of protected areas (e.g. nature reserves), and even by designating new protected areas for wild coffee species,” he adds. “This has already happened in Ethiopia, where there, a scheme of protected areas is in place to conserve wild Arabica coffee.”

Between those efforts, and, hopefully, additions to the germplasms around the world, Davis estimates our wild coffees might have a shot. But from his initial analysis, the outlook is dire — or, as he puts it, “of extreme concern.”