Coffee could soon be extinct – or at least the wild varieties of the coffee plant could be.
The first full assessment of the threats to the 124 different species of wild coffee was published in 2019 by scientists at Kew Gardens, who found that 60 per cent of species are threatened with extinction due to climate change, deforestation, pests and diseases.
The proportion of coffee species at risk is three times the figure for plants generally, which suggests that coffee is an especially vulnerable plant.
Cultivated coffee beans are all of two species: either arabica (Coffea arabica) or robusta (Coffea canephora). Although the new study didn’t look directly at the threats to these two species, it’s likely that the same environmental pressures that apply to wild coffee will affect commercial plantations as well.
Even more worryingly, coffee growers rely on wild coffee plants to crossbreed them with commercial varieties and create new resistances to insects, disease and changing climates. If we lose the genetic diversity present in the wild, commercial growers may not be able to protect their crops against the sudden outbreak of new pests – such as the potato blight that destroyed the Irish potato harvest in the 19th Century.
Like many tropical plants, coffee seeds don’t survive the freeze-drying process used in most seed banks. So scientists will need to use more advanced techniques to preserve the DNA of the wild plants before they are lost entirely.