Climate change, disease, coffee rust and pests coffee beetle can pose a threat to commercial varieties, but the wild species, which are not used in agriculture, there is resistance to climate change and pests. "A figure of 60 per cent of all coffee species threatened with extinction is extremely high, especially when you compare this to a global estimate of 22 per cent for plants", says Eimear Nic Lughadha, senior research leader in Kew's Conservation Department and lead scientist for Kew's Plant Assessment Unit.
"Overall, the fact that the extinction risk across all coffee species was so high - almost 60 percent - that's way above normal extinction risk figures for plants", Aaron Davis, one of the study's lead authors, told AFP. As climate change increasingly drives shifts in local environmental conditions, wild coffee species could be essential to the sustainability of commercial coffee production.
If wild coffee species disappear off the face of the earth, they may take with them genes that protect against diseases and coffee-chomping insects, or allow the plant to thrive in warmer climes.
Arabica, which has been harvested for millennia in Ethiopia and South Sudan, is without question the most popular, making up roughly 60 to 70 percent of all coffee sales worldwide. To assess the risks faced by wild coffees, Davis and his colleagues applied a barometer developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an international organization that assesses biodiversity risks.
"There's a market for low-caffeine coffee and, in fact, some of these [wild species] could be a way we produce naturally decaffeinated coffee", Professor Henry said.
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This includes the wild relative of Coffea arabica, the world's favourite and most widely traded coffee, said researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK. "With so much deforestation going on around the world, wild coffee species are being impacted at an alarming rate".
The researchers called for a major commitment from countries that grow coffee, particularly African countries such as Ethiopia and South Sudan, to "develop and conserve their wild coffee resources [supported] by the global development and conservation communities". Coffee seeds don't store well, unlike wild relatives of other crops such as wheat or maize. There are other options too, but she says, "Conserving coffee in seed banks and specific field stations is often hard and costly, but may also be needed".
It had not been seen in the wild since 1954, and has all but vanished from coffee plantations and botanic gardens. In Madagascar and Tanzania, for example, some species are clustered in small areas, leaving them more vulnerable to a single extinction event.
This is bad news for the planet, for communities and for coffee drinkers.