Scientists Rediscover Climate Resilient Coffee Species

Photo: MarkSweep, Wiki CC

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Imagine you wake up on a Monday morning, put on your “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee!” T-shirt and head to your local café only to find that they’re out of coffee. It turns out that climate change has caused global coffee production to plummet. You panic; how will you ever get your work done? Or speak to your friends and coworkers? Well, don’t fret; scientists have rediscovered a species of coffee that hasn’t been found in the wild for decades, a species so resilient it could just save the coffee industry from imminent peril. And by some stroke of luck, it might taste even better too!

Why This Matters: The world’s coffee “Bean Belt” is located in regions more vulnerable to the imminent impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures in areas between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer in countries worldwide are increasing disease and wiping out insects needed to pollinate coffee plants. Global coffee production supports over 100 million jobs in predominantly lower-income nations. One study found that more than half of the world’s coffee-growing operations, and 88% of Latin America’s, could be rendered unproductive by 2050. The coffee industry has responded relatively well, working with small farms to promote climate adaption and provide seeds, best practices, and production monitoring. Continuing that adaptation means using every tool in their arsenal, and scientists may have found a secret weapon.

Beans, Beans, Beans

Two species of coffee beans currently dominate the world market: Arabica and Robusta, which make up 56% and 43% of global production, respectively. Arabica’s flavor is more highly desired and fetches a higher price, while Robusta is primarily used for instant coffee and coffee blends. But Arabica is far less resilient against high temperatures than Robusta, and Arabica production is expected to plummet by 2050. However, the newly rediscovered Coffea stenophylla is resistant to drought and disease and grows at a mean annual temperature of 76.8 degrees Fahrenheit, 3.42 degrees higher than that of Robusta. Botanist Aaron Davis, leader of the study, said that resilient plants like Stenophylla could help “future proof” the industry. “For the longer term, Stenophylla provides us with an important resource for breeding a new generation of climate-resilient coffee crop plants, given that it possesses a great flavor and heat tolerance,” he said. 

“If the historic reports of resistance to coffee leaf rust and drought tolerance are found to be correct, this would represent further useful assets for coffee plant breeding,” he continued. In a taste test by 18 tasting experts, Stenophylla was found to have a “complex flavor profile, with natural sweetness, medium-high acidity, fruitiness, and good body.” Despite these hopeful qualities, scientists haven’t yet hit a home run. Stenophylla is endangered and has only been found growing in the wild in Sierra Leone. Deforestation in the plant’s historical range, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast, further threatens the already minuscule population. Ensuring your morning cup of Joe lands on your desk is more complicated than planting a few seeds, but with good climate adaptation and forest management, the coffee industry can continue to thrive.

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