Will wild coffee go extinct from climate change? Botanists say we can still save this crop

Climate change might drive wild coffee extinct, which would have broad repercussions for the global industry

By Troy Farah

Science & Health Editor

Published November 28, 2022 11:56AM (EST)

Small sack of coffee (Getty Images/A. Martin UW Photography)
Small sack of coffee (Getty Images/A. Martin UW Photography)

Every day, hundreds of millions of people wake up and immediately get high. Of course, their drug of choice is caffeine, meaning this is socially acceptable behavior that is even encouraged by workplaces, which often provide it for free. Caffeine consumption is so prevalent most people don't even think of it as drug use, even though this is a substance that profoundly affects mood, digestion, sleep and many other biological processes. It can even be hard to quit, triggering cravings and headaches for people with strong dependency. (At least coffee has been linked with many health benefits.)

Some estimates warn that 50 percent of the land used to grow coffee will be unproductive by 2050.

We're so used to having caffeine as part of our waking lives, it's almost impossible to imagine a society not under the influence of coffee, tea and energy drinks. Similar to fish that don't notice water, many humans also take their favorite stimulant for granted. But what if that were to all one day disappear? What if everyone's morning cup of Joe suddenly became a cup of … No? (Sorry.)

Surprisingly, it is a real possibility. As climate change worsens, the threats against coffee plants are rising, meaning one day many species of coffee could be extinct in the wild. Drought, floods, heatwaves and the spread of pathogens like fungus and viruses are already making it more difficult for coffee to grow in some regions. If this trend continues, one of humans' favorite substances may become scarce and extremely expensive, with some estimates warning that 50 percent of the land used to grow coffee will be unproductive by 2050.

Since the mid-'90s, Aaron Davis, a botanist and senior research leader at Kew Gardens in London, has traveled the world studying coffee plants. Last year, Davis co-authored a study describing six new species of coffee plants native to Madagascar, a few of which are already listed as critically endangered. Davis also co-authored a 2019 analysis in Science Advances, examining the health of global coffee species and found that 60 percent are threatened with extinction, with insufficient data on another 11 percent.

But the damaging effects of global heating on coffee cultivation are already being felt globally, with multi-generational coffee farmers witnessing their crops struggle in a transforming climate.

"Sometimes it's been almost spooky to listen to what farmers tell me about changing climate, even though they've got no access to climate data or records," Davis told Salon. "They haven't seen the graphs, they haven't seen the IPCC reports. But what they say very much corresponds to what's happened and what's happening," both in climate models and recorded data.

The effects of climate change on coffee aren't always direct. In fact, to some degree, higher temperatures can actually benefit coffee plants, Davis says. But the suitable regions where coffee grows best are starting to shift, which could make coffee a more rare and expensive commodity.

"Coffee has already moved," Davis says. "It's not really the temperature itself. It's temperature in combination with many other things, particularly precipitation, rainfall, seasonality, extreme weather events, shifting weather patterns. It's very complicated."

For example, Davis was co-author on a paper published last month in Nature Food showing that Coffea arabica is sensitive to vapor pressure deficit (VPD), a variable not previously explored in coffee. VPD essentially relates to the way heat can suck moisture from the soil, forcing plants to draw more water from the ground. Assuming this doesn't kill the plants, it can give them less energy for producing fruits, which are technically what coffee is. The corresponding rise in VPD with global temperatures could affect the yields of more than 90 percent of countries that produce coffee.

Cultivated coffee plants will likely always exist in some diminished form, Davis predicts, but in the meantime, wild coffee plants are especially threatened, which could create huge problems in the near future.  There are 130 coffee species known to science, but humans really only drink two: Coffea canephora and Coffea arabica, which make up 43 and 57 percent of the global market respectively. But that hasn't always been the case.

For most of the 19th Century, the only species of coffee in circulation was C. arabica. Between 1869 and 1930, Southeast Asia was plagued by a fungus called coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix), which destroys the plant's ability to photosynthesize. The disease swept through parts of India, the Philippines and Ceylon, the area now known as Sri Lanka, leaving "Arabica graveyards" in its wake.

Some plantations never recovered and switched to growing tea instead. Others began cultivating a different species, C. liberica, which was naturally resistant to the rust. However, its defenses waned over time and it too became susceptible to the fungal pathogen, though its distinct taste also helped to make it obsolete in the region.

"We have opportunities to broaden the crop portfolio of coffee to move away from just two species to maybe three, four or five, providing something that gives us more adaptation potential in the face of climate change," Davis says.

In the early 1900s, C. canephoa, as known as Robusta, became dominant in the area. It's just one example of how coffee plant preferences have changed throughout history and each time, it meant finding tools or alternatives that exist in nature. This practice is called "bioprospecting." But if, for example, another weird plant disease makes Arabica or Robusta hard to cultivate, and wild coffee species are scarce or extinct, we may not be able to save this industry again, as has happened to many plants throughout history.

"Time and again, researchers and breeders have gone back to the wild to find plants with specific traits to sustain the industry, whether that's disease resistance, pest resistance, etc.," Davis says. "I think what we really need to do is work on these now in preparation for the difficulties that we that we will face in the coming decades."

If coffee were to go extinct in the wild, we might be able to make synthetic coffee using some kind of substrate or plant material soaked in caffeine. Lab-based coffee made using bioreactors full of yeast or bacteria is another route that's being explored. But Davis argues that we should try domesticating some of the other 128 species of coffee, before they're gone. Some of these varieties will have a unique flavor, too — they may be less acidic or bitter, for example.

"We have opportunities to broaden the crop portfolio of coffee to move away from just two species to maybe three, four or five, providing something that gives us more adaptation potential in the face of climate change," Davis says. "It's also a great opportunity, I think, for consumers of coffee to broaden their sensory experience of coffee and try something that's new, exciting, delicious."

There's also a strong economic incentive to save coffee, which is the most widely traded agricultural commodity in the world after crude oil. Around 100 million people, including 25 million farmers, are part of this international industry.

Despite how important coffee is to our global economy, let alone our morning routines, we still have many questions about how these plants thrive in the wild and what they may offer us. So it's about more than finding synthetic replacements, new varieties or moving plantations to higher ground. It's about preserving a drug industry (nothing wrong with that) that defines something special about being human.

"We really, really need to focus on carbon neutrality," Davis warns. "There's a deep psychological issue around losing things like coffee or wine or chocolate," which are also threatened by global heating. "Life just becomes a little bit more mundane," Davis says. "Not everybody's a coffee drinker. But it starts to really wear on the psyche, once you start losing that, all those things that make life special."

By Troy Farah

Troy Farah is Salon's science and health editor specializing in drug policy and pandemics.

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Agriculture Botany Caffeine Climate Change Climate Crisis Coffee Plants Reporting Science