Coffee Could Be Extinct Before The End Of The Century
November 8, 2012

Coffee Could Be Extinct Before The End Of The Century

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

For many of us, a hot, freshly brewed morning cup of coffee is a necessity. But with the looming threat of global warming, that wake-up brew could become a thing of the past, according to a new study from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK).

The researchers note that their predictions are for only one type of coffee bean, the wild arabica. However, it is one of only two species of bean used to make coffee and is by far the most popular--it accounts for nearly 70 percent of the global coffee market, including nearly all fresh coffee sold in restaurants and supermarkets across the US and Europe.

A different bean, known as the Robusta, is typically used for freeze-dried coffee and is commonly consumed in Greece and Turkey. This bean has a much higher caffeine content and is less pleasant tasting for most people.

The researchers said that rising temperatures due to climate change could mean that wild arabica coffee could be gone within 70 years, posing a substantial risk to the genetic sustainability of one of the world´s most precious commodities.

Although commercial coffee growers would still be able to plant, grow and harvest crops in plantations with specialized conditioning, the experts said the loss of wild arabica, which has greater genetic diversity, would make it extremely difficult for plantations to survive long-term threats.

The researchers, collaborating with scientists in Ethiopia, have found that 38 to 99.7 percent of the areas suitable for wild arabica growth will become unsuitable before the end of this century if the temperatures continue their upward trend.

Even a temperature jump of just a few degrees on average will put an unparalleled strain on the livelihood of millions of people who grow and produce arabica coffee, as growing regions decline and eventually cease to exist.

"The extinction of arabica coffee is a startling and worrying prospect," lead author Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, said in an interview with Reuters´ Kate Kelland.

The findings of this study makes it extremely important for organizations such as the World Coffee Research to continue to collaborate and work to improve the genetic strength of cultivated arabica by preserving the wild plants, he added.

Identifying new sites where arabica can be grown is also important in preserving the wild arabica and preventing its demise, according to Davis.

"The worst case scenario, as drawn from our analyses, is that wild Arabica could be extinct by 2080. This should alert decision makers to the fragility of the species," said Justin Moat, one of the study authors.

In some areas, such as Boma Plateau in South Sudan, wild arabica could become extinct as early as 2020, based on the low flowering rate and poor health of current crops.

"Arabica can only exist in a very specific pace with a very specific number of other variables. It is mainly temperature but also the relationship between temperature and seasonality — the average temperature during the wet season for example," noted Davis.

The climate changes are occurring so rapidly that caffeine farms will have to continually move their plantations, as much as 50 miles, every decade to survive the conditions, he added.

Davis said the estimates of course are “conservative” because they hadn´t taken into account the widespread deforestation taking place in the highland forests where the beans are grown, and the decline in the number of birds which spread seeds.

Even if the wild arabica does not completely disappear, climate change will likely impact future yields and also alter the taste of the bean in the decades to come, the researchers warned.

The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, was the first of its kind to model the influence climate change has on naturally occurring populations of any coffee species. Even studies on plantation coffee have been limited, despite the growing concerns farmers and stakeholders have on the commodity.

The team used field studies and museum data to run bioclimatic models for wild arabica coffee in order to deduce the actual and predicted geographical distribution for the species. The distribution was then modeled through time until 2080, based on the Hadley Centre Coupled Model, version 3. The team used the model for three different emission scenarios over three time intervals (2020, 2050 and 2080). All three scenarios showed a profoundly negative influence on both the size and extent of wild arabica.

For each scenario, the team performed two types of bioclimatic analysis: locality and area.

In the locality analysis the most favorable outcome is a 65 percent reduction in the number of suitable localities, and the worst was 99.7 percent reduction, by 2080.

In area analysis the most favorable outcome is a 38 percent reduction, and the least favorable is a 90 percent reduction, by 2080.

The team tested their modeling predictions during a visit to South Sudan in April 2012. Comparing the observations made during the trip with a study on wild arabica in 1941, it was clear not all of the environmental stress evident could be attributed to factors of deforestation and agriculture over a 70 year period.

Their modeling predicted for these forests, the wild arabica could be extinct by 2020 due to climate change, based on their observations.

The researchers hope their study will form the basis for developing strategies for the future survival of arabica in the wild. The study has identified a number of core sites that could possibly sustain wild arabica throughout this century. But in some areas, such as Ethiopia and South Sudan, loss of habitat due to deforestation will be a serious threat on the survival of the arabica.

However, it is now clear that even if a forest area can be well protected, climate change alone could be enough to bring the arabica to extinction in those areas.

"Coffee plays an important role in supporting livelihoods and generating income, and has become part of our modern society and culture. The extinction of Arabica coffee is a startling and worrying prospect. However, the objective of the study was not to provide scaremonger predictions for the demise of Arabica in the wild. The scale of the predictions is certainly cause for concern, but should be seen more as a baseline, from which we can more fully assess what actions are required," said Davis.

"As part of a future-proofing exercise for the long-term sustainability of Arabica production it is essential that the reserves established in Ethiopia to conserve Arabica genetic resources are appropriately funded and carefully managed," said Tadesse Woldemariam Gole, from the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum in Ethiopia.

“Our aim is to develop and apply these analyses to other important and threatened plants, on a routine basis. There is an immense amount of information held in museum collections around the world, such as Kew, and we have only just started to unlock their potential for assessing some of society's most pressing issues,” added Moat.