Is coffee at risk of disappearing? Scientists gathers to look for alternatives


About a month ago a group of scientists and coffee experts gathered in the south of France to discuss, test and reflect on the future of the coffee for not only decades, but centuries ahead.

The convention was hosted in Montpellier and at various virtual offices across Europe, led by the French agricultural research organization CIRAD. The scope was to examine and taste the qualities and properties of different coffee species and cultivars to the currently most popular ones. More specifically, Coffea stenophylla, Coffea brevipes, and Coffea congensis, three species that have been known to scientists but are not used for commercial purposes. Along with CIRAD representatives, the tasting involved experts from some of the most prominent coffee companies worldwide, like Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Nespresso, Starbucks, Supremo, l'Arbre à Café, Belco and AST Sensory Skills.

The cause for this convention was not only valuing these three species but, mainly, the worry about the future of the three main species of the Coffea (coffee) genus: Arabica, Robusta and Liberica. Virtually all the coffee drank every day across the world comes from these 3 species.

Photo by Austin Park on Unsplash

Arabica is the most prized for its variety of flavors, great acidity and sweetness, and a complexity that makes its beans ideal to brew in any form, be it an espresso, a slow pour over or a simple coffee machine, dripper type. Most commercial coffee companies are higher valued if they can make use of “100% Arabica” beans. Such is the reputation of this species among coffee experts.

Robusta is the second main coffee species in use today, sought after for its substantial body, large production potential and good resistance to diseases and pests compared to the more frail Arabica.

Liberica comprises only about 0.1% of the coffee market but it's worth citing as it is popular in some areas like West Africa, Malaysia and parts of Indonesia. It is a species with great quality, low caffeine content, and good yield. Its rarity causes it to be more expensive than both Robusta and Arabica, hindering its diffusion.

The climate and disease threats to coffee

Scientists and experts are worried that these, and especially Arabica and Robusta, may disappear in the near future, with 60% of wild coffee species under the threat of extinction. The principal cause? Climate change, which will reduce the areas of the world where the Coffea plant can grow. This initially will make quality coffee rarer and pricier until it might disappear completely. Unless we do something about it, slowing down climate change until it stops, the bulk of the coffee species may be at risk of not surviving the climate crisis. You can read more about this threat on the Science Advances website and in this paper, focusing on the threat on coffee cultivation in Ethiopia.

Not only climate change is a menace to the coffee species. A bane of the plant has historically been coffee leaf rust, a disease that has been fought since the 19th century, unsuccessfully. There's currently no cure, and episodes of leaf rust have destroyed extensive areas dedicated to coffee cultivation. The latest occurrence was in 2012, leading to a drop in supply and a steep rise of coffee prices. The disease can spread fast and far away, with one worrying occurrence of it being reported back in October on the Hawaii Islands. Removing the affected plants and replanting sane ones is so far the most adopted solution, along with crossbreeding the coffee species and cultivars that are susceptible to the leaf rust with those who aren't. Clearly this doesn’t prevent the leaf rust from wreaking havoc on the coffee cultivations, only mitigating its destructive effects.

Which leads us to why the convention in Montpellier on the future of coffee was called in the first place. Among an estimated number of 124 total species of the Coffea gene, some are resistant to the leaf rust, while others can survive in a larger number of climates, sustaining more extreme weather conditions like aridity, colder nights, and stronger sunlights. Some of these were brought and tested in Montpellier to gauge their qualities, gustatory features and how they compared to the popular Arabica and Robusta species, with the aim to possibly becoming a substitute for them, if the extinction threat would become more real in the next years.

Promising results from three species of coffee

The Stenophylla is more adaptable to higher temperatures while maintaining quite good tasting qualities. The Brevipes and Congensis are even more robust, rivalling Robusta in terms of taste but not Arabica. It was analysed in Montpellier also the viability of crossing of Coffea Canephora (Robusta) with the Coffea Congensis or Coffea Brevipes, to have a robust, high-yielding variety and coincidentally improving the quality. Coffee experts tasted every new species to understand how much they differed in flavors and aromatics compared to Arabica and Robusta, whether they could compare to them, and if they could meet consumers' demands.

The actual results from the convention will be published once they are fully collected and organized. For now, CIRAD maintains that the results were exceptionally promising.

There's thus some hope that if Arabica or Robusta wouldn't manage to survive in the coming years, a substitute may be satisfactory, able to live in more climates, opening up a new era of coffee production. If the new species can maintain their promises, more areas can be used for coffee cultivation, enlarging the producing countries' list to many that today aren't capable of offering the right environment for the Arabica and Robusta species to thrive in. As we have seen last year with the discovery of Yemenia, a new species that had been growing unknown to the experts for centuries in Yemen, there is a small world of coffee species, varieties and local cultivars that is still to be explored, scientifically. The more attention is brought to the issues affecting Arabica and Robusta, the more investments and attention can be spared for researching, developing, and improving rarer species.

It may become not only desirable but necessary, sooner than we can imagine, to increase the variety of the coffee species we consume.

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