Is coffee at risk of extinction?
Is Coffee Really At Risk of Going Extinct?
The term "extinction" might sound dramatic, but it does help to underscore the scale of the challenges facing the global coffee supply in the decades that lie ahead. There are significant changes underway in our world, and if we don't address these proactively, our favourite brew might become a luxury that we can't afford or even access in just a few decades.
There are several reasons behind this potential threat.
First, coffee plants are rather picky; they need specific conditions to thrive, including stable temperatures, certain altitude ranges, and a precise amount of rainfall. Climate change is altering these conditions in many ways. Rising global temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, and more frequent droughts and floods are all affecting the areas where coffee can be grown. A study last year from researchers in Switzerland predicts that, if climate change continues at its current rate, we could lose over half of the most suitable existing coffee lands by 2050.
Second, coffee plants are vulnerable to a variety of diseases and pests, like coffee leaf rust, a fungus that has been damaging coffee plantations around the world, especially in Central and South America. Warmer temperatures have allowed these pests and diseases to thrive and move into new regions, where they weren't able to survive before, causing more damage and reducing supply.
Another major factor is deforestation. Many coffee-growing regions, such as parts of South America and Africa, are losing forests due to agriculture expansion, logging, and urbanisation. This not only destroys vital habitats for coffee plants, but it also disrupts local ecosystems, affecting the sustainability and long-term viability of coffee cultivation.
Socio-economic issues also pose challenges for coffee growers. Smallholder farmers, who make up a significant part of the global coffee industry, often face low incomes, lack of resources and education, and limited market opportunities. These difficulties can discourage young farmers from entering the industry, leading to a decrease in overall coffee production.
In order to adapt to these changing conditions, farmers need fair and sufficient pay. This includes adopting sustainable farming practices, agroforestry (where coffee is grown with other trees), and soil conservation methods to maintain healthy ecosystems. However, if farmers are struggling to even meet the daily needs of their families, they are unlikely be able to invest in these necessary adaptations, to ensure the long-term viabilitiy of their business.
Let's talk about wild coffee
The bulk of the coffee we drink comes from just two farmed species, Arabica and Robusta. Because of this narrow genetic pool, these species are more susceptible to diseases and pests, like coffee leaf rust. Preserving and exploring the diversity of other coffee species, currently wild and not farmed for consumption, is crucial for the future of the coffee industry.
However, there are over 120 wild species of coffee plants that aren't being farmed yet. They might be able to produce coffee that we'd enjoy, but research by scientists at Kew Royal Botanical Gardens shows that 60% of these wild species are threatened by extinction due to deforestation, climate change, and the spread of fungal pathogens and pests. This highlights the importance of increasing biodiversity and protecting these species.
So, what can coffee lovers do to protect their favourite brew?
As consumers, we play a crucial role. We can choose to buy from brands that prioritise sustainability, support work to reduce carbon emissions, support fair pay, and invest in initiatives that benefit coffee farmers and their communities.
For example, at TrueStart, we support various social and environmental projects. One such initiative is a carbon removal forestry project in Colombia, our primary coffee source. This project provides financial and technical support to local farmers, allowing them to adopt new, sustainable farming practices that can boost their resilience to climate change. The project also focuses on reforestation and agroforestry, enhancing biodiversity and contributing to carbon removal.
We also need to push supermarkets to give more shelf space to independent brands that value ethical sourcing, quality, and the impact on people and the planet. What you buy truly matters. For instance, just two large corporations dominate 85% of the instant coffee market in UK supermarkets, often prioritising profit over long-term sustainability and the health of consumers.
Supporting certified B Corps like TrueStart, which are verified to have met high standards of social and environmental performance, is a good alternative to buying from the many brands that are owned by the world's largest food and drink mega-corporations.
It's not all doom and gloom!
It's important that we don't take our daily brew for granted. But work is being done!
In 2018, after years of searching, scientists rediscovered a rare species of coffee plant - Coffea stenophylla - that has the potential to ensure the future of great-tasting coffee under climate change. The plant has the unique combination of tolerance to high temperatures and a superior flavour. Dr Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew said: “This is a once in a lifetime scientific discovery – stenophylla could ensure the future of high-quality coffee.”
The more we know about the challenges we face as our climate changes, the better we can adapt and protect the drink we all love.