Most popular coffee blends derive from either the Arabica or Robusta bean, but as Somini Sengupta explains for The New York Times, these strains are just two of the world’s 124 wild coffee species. Although the majority of these varieties are neither cultivated nor consumed, the genetic diversity they represent could be the key to preserving your morning cup of joe—especially as climate change and deforestation threaten to eradicate the beloved source of caffeine.
A pair of papers published in Science Advances and Global Change Biology place the potential coffee crisis in perspective, revealing that 75 of Earth’s wild coffee species, or some 60 percent, are at risk of extinction. The Arabica bean, a native Ethiopian species used to make most high-quality brews, is one such threatened species: According to Helen Briggs of BBC News, the team behind the Global Change Biology study found that Arabica’s population could fall by around 50 percent by 2088.
Arabica beans are at the core of rich, flavorful blends including Javan coffee, Ethiopian sidamo and Jamaican blue mountain. Comparatively, Adam Moolna writes for the Conversation, Robusta has a harsher taste and is most often used in instant blends. Interestingly, Arabica actually originates from Robusta, which was bred with a species known as Coffea eugenoides to create the crossbred bean.
Genetic interbreeding may be the best way to save commercial coffee species. As Helen Chadburn, a species conservation scientist at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens and co-author of the Science Advances study, tells Popular Mechanic’s John Wenz, wild species carry “genetic traits”—think drought tolerance and pest or disease resistance—“that may be useful for the development … of our cultivated coffees.”
It’s also possible that experimenting with different types of wild coffee could yield tasty new brews. Chadburn adds, “Some other coffee species are naturally low in caffeine, or have an excellent (and unusual) flavor.”
There are a litany of obstacles associated with coffee conservation. In Madagascar and Tanzania, for example, some species are clustered in small areas, leaving them more vulnerable to a single extinction event. On a larger scale, habitat loss, land degradation, drought and deforestation also pose significant risks.
The main threat facing Arabica crops is climate change, according to Jeremy Hodges, Fabiana Batista and Aine Quinn of Bloomberg. Arabica requires a year-round temperature of 59 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as distinct rainy and dry seasons, in order to grow properly. When temperatures fall, the beans become frosty; when temperatures rise, the quality of the coffee falls, and yield per tree declines.
As global warming pushes temperatures upward, coffee farmers are being forced to innovate. Growers across Africa and South America are moving their crops to higher, cooler ground, but as Eli Meixler reports for Time, this may not be enough to save the Arabica bean—particularly in Ethiopia, where up to 60 percent of the area used for coffee cultivation could become unsuitable by century’s end.
Maintaining wild coffee species in seed banks or nationally protected forests could also prove essential to the caffeinated drink’s survival. Unfortunately, The New York Times’ Sengupta notes, the researchers found that just over half of wild coffee species are held in seed banks, while two-thirds grow in national forests. Even if scientists can boost the percentage of coffee seeds stored in seed banks, The Conversation’s Moolna points out that these samples don’t hold up in storage as well as crops such as wheat or maize.
Overall, the two new studies present a dire vision of coffee’s future—or lack thereof. As Aaron Davis, a Kew researcher who co-authored both papers, tells Daily Coffee News’ Nick Brown, in terms of sustainability and conservation efforts, the coffee sector is around 20 to 30 years behind other agricultural industries. As coffee yields shrink, Lauren Kent adds for CNN, consumers may notice their daily caffeine boost becoming both more expensive and less palatable.
Coffee isn’t completely out of the game yet: According to Moolna, conservation focused on maintaining genetic diversity and sustaining species in their native environments, rather than solely in collections such as seed banks, could save the drink from extinction. Still, if you’re a coffee fan, you may want to stock up on your favorite roasts sooner rather than later.