Coffee Is At Risk Of Extinction — Here's What You Need To Know

What if the cup of coffee in your hand were your last?

Contributing Writer
Someone holds robusta coffee beans.

Someone holds robusta coffee beans.

Coffee is in danger. We could see the end of cheap, or even sort of reasonably priced, readily available coffee in our lifetimes. It might take longer, but avoiding the coffee-deprived zombie apocalypse will likely require a global shift in how coffee is grown and even the kind of coffee we drink.

A fungus is driving global coffee loss

The villain in this real-life horror story is a powdery orange dust that spreads death from leaf to leaf in coffee farms. The creeping plague arrives as a trail of blotchy leaves, then naked branches, and finally withered trees. This death comes from a fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, less poetically known as 'coffee leaf rust,' or CLR, because it looks like rust on the coffee leaves. Botanists don’t get paid to be clever.

CLR can absolutely devastate commercial coffee farms. The disease is currently raging through much of the coffee-producing world at an annual cost in the billions of dollars.

History can tell us how bad CLR infection can be: the fungus is credited with literally swinging Brits from coffee to tea. In the 1800s, CLR destroyed all commercial coffee production in Ceylon, then a British colony, and farmers switched to tea. Brits followed and tea-drinking blossomed. Brits have swung back to coffee drinking, but coffee growing in the region, now Sri Lanka, hasn’t.

Before CLR, the region was the third-largest global producer of coffee. Now it isn't even on the coffee-growing map. The region isn’t alone. The Indonesian island of Java was once such a coffee-growing powerhouse that its name was synonymous with our dark brew, but the region's economy is now driven by tourism, not coffee growing — in part thanks to the devastating legacy of destruction from CLR.

Coffee bagging in Indonesia.Tim Gurney | Dreamstime

Coffee is a livelihood for many, not just a morning jumpstart

The prospect of coffee-deprived zombies may be good for a chuckle or click, but the loss of coffee is no joke. The annual global coffee economy is in the hundreds of billions. As many as 125 million people farm coffee, including 25 million smallholder farmers who rely on the crop as a primary source of currency. The loss of this cash crop would be devastating.

And coffee’s situation is actually getting worse. Human-driven climate change is accelerating the spread of the CLR fungus and the loss of coffee growing that goes with it. A warmer climate is also bringing drought, another killer of coffee production.

Move the farms

Experts suggest that there are three ways that we can future-proof coffee and save our daily cup.

Usually “move” means up to higher, cooler, elevations. Traditionally, as CLR infested and destroyed farms, farms were moved. But, not all farming regions have an up — and no up goes on forever.

Remember Sri Lanka and Java? In both regions at some point, there was no place new to go and both lost global-level coffee production to CLR. If we keep just moving farms, we will run out of farmable land, possibly sooner rather than later.

Adapt and improve farming practices

The rust fungus actually grows best in conditions that we can, to some extent, reduce if not remove. Farmers can improve or modernize irrigation systems or expand shade-growing options, but these take money that small farmers may not have.

One recent study suggests an unexpected, but possibly manageable, solution: diversify the farm ecosystems. Monocultures, like many coffee farms, are often breeding grounds for disease, but a complex, multispecies, approach to farming could reduce rust.

Researchers found that certain snails actually eat rust spores and could, potentially, control outbreaks. In this specific study, the gastropod under the microscope was an invasive species with substantial baggage in the form of collateral ecological damage. The scientists were optimistic that other, non-invasive, even native, molluscan munchers could be cultured along with our favorite bean fruit. A pairing of escargot and espresso, anyone?

An arabica and a robusta coffee bean.An arabica and a robusta coffee bean.Toon S | Dreamstime

Change the coffee we grow

Today, two species, arabica and robusta, make up over 95% of all commercial coffee farming. Arabica, is by far the favourite for our morning cup — but it is the most susceptible to rust and climate change. Like many things tasty, it is a bit of a delicate flower. Robusta is more resistant to CLR and drought. It makes up about 40% of the world coffee market, but mainly the instant and decaf market, with little contribution to gourmet or “specialty” coffee.

The reason is taste since robusta leans toward rough and bitter. The one specialty robusta roast I got my hands on tasted like rain-soaked cardboard with notes of terrible. Think bad diner coffee gone cold, then microwaved. Yeah, it was that good. There is a movement afoot, however, to find specialty grade Robusta and, I’ve been told, there are some good ones out there.

A shift toward a specialty quality robusta would help in the battle against CLR and climate change-driven drought, but so far we just don’t have that coffee.

Coffee variations.Coffee variations.Kheng Ho Toh | Dreamstime

However, a “lost” coffee species may be that hope. A hundred years ago, the world of commercial coffee had at least one more player, the narrow-leaved highland coffee stenophylla. Coffee lore has it that the variety was on par with arabica — and science is bearing this out.

Recently, a group of scientists out of Kew Gardens in the UK rediscovered stenophylla in the wild and taste-tested the resulting brew. The long lost variety scored as good as arabica — and the species is CLR and drought resistant! It is early days, but this lost species may be the savior that the coffee world is awaiting.

Extinction still looms

The rediscovered wild stenophylla highlights a central plight for much of modern agriculture. Will we lose resources before we even know they exist? The wild plots are few and far between — and at risk from deforestation.

This refound resource almost wasn’t refound. In fact, most wild coffee is at risk of extinction. Combine this point with the value of ecosystem diversity to healthy coffee farming that the snail study highlighted and a central theme emerges.

What can we do?

If we want to keep enjoying this magical beverage we call coffee, we need to pay attention to — and care for — this fragile world where we drink it.

Speak with your wallet. Buy coffee that is ethically farmed, support efforts to limit deforestation globally, and, hopefully, coffee will be here to stay. Although who is to say whether 50 years from now, the magic in your cup will still be arabica.

Thomas Merritt
Contributing Writer
Thomas Merritt is a contributing writer for MTL Blog.
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