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Feature - issue #3

The Bitter Reality

Words by Aaron Davis
Photography by Emily Garthwaite

Research shows that 60% of the world’s 124 wild coffee species are at risk of extinction. Protecting those coffee species, and other wild relatives of our food crops is vital for long-term sustainability.

A smallholder coffee farmer picking wild coffee in Yayu Forest, A UNESCO protected biosphere in Ethiopia.

More than two billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every day, and consumption is increasing. The global success of coffee supports a large and diverse sector, involving complex relationships with multiple stakeholders, from farmer to consumer. Coffee farming alone employs 100 million people across the world’s tropical, coffee-growing belt. When all other elements of the coffee value chain are included, such as processing, exportation, roasting, and retail, it becomes clear that coffee is a serious business.

It is probably fair to say that few coffee consumers are aware of the complicated value chains required to deliver the plant-based products we consume, let alone the places where they are produced or the plants that provide them. As we progress through the global climate crisis, the bio-diversity crisis, and understand the threats posed to our own survival, we will need to become more aware of how we interact with local and global communities and their environments. Coffee serves as a good example to illustrate some of these points and in particular the importance of biodiversity and why it should be conserved.

The forest area is important for coffee as it represents a genetic reserve of indigenous wild forest plants distinct from the cultivars in common circulation.

Nobody knows exactly where, or the precise time when, humans started to consume coffee. Coffee as a beverage is at least 700 years old, and possibly older. Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) was the first species to be domesticated. As a wild plant, it is restricted to southern Ethiopia and a few small forests in South Sudan. From the 1500s onwards, the farming of Arabica coffee developed rapidly across the tropical regions of the world and became dominant as the coffee crop plant of choice. However, by the end of the nineteenth-century Arabica farming came up against some major issues, particularly in Asia and South East Asia, where several countries were devastated by the appearance and rapid spread of a fungal disease known as coffee leaf rust.

There is good evidence to suggest that it was originally used as food rather than as a beverage. Even today, in cultures where coffee grows naturally or has been cultivated for many centuries, all the parts of the coffee fruit may be used for sustenance: the pulp is used to make flour and juices, or consumed directly fresh or dried (as chewing coffee); and the seeds (the coffee beans) roasted and eaten as a snack (with garlic and onion), or mixed with other ingredients and used as a high energy convenience food (cooked and mixed with butter).

The coffee cherries are pulped in a machine to separate the coffee beans (left) from the outer fruit (right) prior to washing and sun drying.

One of the major casualties of that era was Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), which ceased coffee production. This led to major social upheaval, including mass human migration, as we have seen in recent years in Central America, and in response to the very same disease (coffee leaf rust). Coffee production never really recovered in Sri Lanka, which instead went over to producing its famous tea.

But there was a solution: Robusta coffee (Caffea canephora). Known to Portuguese and Arab traders since at least the seventeenth century, and probably well before by communities in Africa (but not as a beverage), this species was unknown to science until 1897. In the early 1900s it was brought into service as a replacement for Arabica coffee in places where coffee leaf rust prevailed. From recent and humble beginnings, Robusta coffee now comprises around 40% of the total global coffee production and is still gaining ground over Arabica coffee (60% of global production). Robusta provides us with a good example of how a wild plant has helped secure the future of a major crop and the many millions of people that depend on it.

Workers at a table of sun drying coffee

‘‘Looking across this century and beyond we are certainly going to need those wild coffee resources, as we attempt to adapt to our rapidly changing climate, and especially increasing temperatures, worsening drought conditions and less predictable weather patterns.’’

If we take a look at coffee farming over the last 100 years or so, we also see that other major production issues, and especially fungal diseases, have been overcome by utilising wild coffee plant diversity, and on a regular basis (around every 30 years). More recently, coffee breeders have used little-known wild species to breed coffees with resistance to major pests. In addition to these benefits, some of the world’s best tasting Arabica coffees have, quite recently, come from the wild forests of Ethiopia and South Sudan, including the much acclaimed and highly valued Gesha coffee. If the coffee sector had not had access to wild coffee resources, then the coffee farming landscape of the world would look very different today - and the sensory diversity of coffee would be all the poorer.

Looking across this century and beyond we are certainly going to need those wild coffee resources, as we attempt to adapt to our rapidly changing climate, and especially increasing temperatures, worsening drought conditions and less predictable weather patterns. Moreover, the biological characteristics of Arabica and Robusta coffee make them especially vulnerable to climate change, as they are only able to survive within a fairly narrow range of climatic conditions, known as the ‘climate envelope’. We should also bear in mind that coffee is a tree, relying in most places on rainfed conditions. Unlike annual crops, such as wheat and maize, which are replanted each and every year, tree crops such as coffee have to be in the ground for many years, at the mercy of inclement weather, year-on-year.

Previous page: Seedlings are propagated with the growing plants, covered to protect them from the sun.

Fortunately, the coffee genus is large and diverse, with 124 species occurring naturally in Africa, Madagascar, and Asia. Within this pool of diversity, there are species that have the potential for climate resilience, and some of them also have the required taste attributes. A few of these wild species were used in previous times, but only on a small, local scale. These natural resources offer us opportunities to adapt to climate change. This sounds like good news, but there are now some serious concerns for wild coffee diversity. A 2019 study by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, into the risk of coffee extinction found that of the 124 wild species, a staggering 60% are threatened with extinction, and many of these have little or no conservation measures in place to ensure their survival: 45% are not conserved ex-situ (for example, in research stations or botanic gardens), and 28% do not fall within a protected area (for example, a nature reserve or national park).

When we need to use these biodiversity resources, also known as natural capital, will they still be there? The current situation raises serious concerns for the longer-term sustainability of the global coffee sector. The message is clear, not only for coffee but for all crops and harvestable products: we need to fully appreciate the considerable value of biodiversity and take effective measures to conserve it.

There is a final process to check that the last of the coffee fruit has been removed

Much of the work for the study was undertaken during two decades of fieldwork, in Africa, Madagascar, and Asia, where researchers from Kew Gardens were able to witness at first hand profound negative changes to natural landscapes and the considerable threats to biodiversity, not only for wild coffee species but also to thousands of other species. Recent fieldwork has brought the situation into an even sharper focus, as researchers start to track down those coffee species that have the promise for developing the coffee crops of the future.

An example is the highland coffee of Sierra Leone (Coffea stenophylla), which is said to be an exquisite tasting coffee, and has attributes for improving the climate resilience potential of coffee. This species has not been recorded in the wild in Sierra Leone since 1954, or in Ivory Coast since the 1980s. As part of a project to reinvigorate the coffee sector in Sierra Leone a team from Kew Greenwich University and Sierra Leone went back to the original forest where it was last recorded, and after some considerable effort only managed to find a single plant. By good fortune, and after some serious trekking, they did find a healthy population in eastern Sierra Leone. If they had waited another five or 10 years to look for this plant it may have been lost forever. Even so, the prospects for the survival of this species in the wild do not look promising.

Seedlings are propagated with the growing plants, covered to protect them from the sun.

‘‘The message is clear, not only for coffee, but for all crops and harvestable products: we need to fully appreciate the considerable value of biodiversity and take effective measures to conserve it.’’

The Yayu Forest Coffee Project is a partnership between the UK government’s Darwin Initiative, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, and Kew Gardens. Its aim is to provide funding avenues to help conserve the important biodiversity of the UNESCO Yayu Biosphere in Ethiopia, via a mechanism known as mainstreaming, where economic activity provides the driver for forest preservation. Training is given to farmers to improve the quality and traceability of their coffee, which leads not only to a more durable and sustainable trading relationship but also a considerable improvement in income via better coffee prices. Because the coffee is produced in a semi-natural forest, important biodiversity is preserved alongside the coffee crop in the designated buffer zone of the Yayu Reserve, and the pristine core zone of the reserve is protected. What is more, inside the core zone lies one of the world’s most important refuges for wild Arabica coffee. In this way, the project is using coffee farming to conserve wild coffee diversity. Consumers may be paying a bit more for their coffee, but they are helping to protect key biodiversity and improve farmer’s livelihoods.

At night the drying tables are covered with plastic sheeting to protect them from rain or morning dew (top). Served from a special pot the coffee ceremony is an important aspect of social and business meetings in Ethiopia

It is an irony that coffee can both help to preserve biodiversity and be a major cause of bio-diversity loss, via deforestation. There is a joint responsibility on the one hand for coffee retailers to be absolutely transparent about the environmental and social impact their products have, and on the other hand for consumers to make choices that help to preserve biodiversity and healthy natural environments. We need to devise more ways to ensure that wild coffee, and biodiversity in general, is conserved, but in a way that works for both people and the natural world.

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