The rare coffee plant was a lone shrub with thin leaves and marble-sized fruits that sat on an isolated ridge in northern Sierra Leone. A team of researchers spent more than a year looking for it, only to discover that the plant had not yet begun to bear fruit. They would need to find a mate for this rare variety if they wished to scale it up.
This was no ordinary coffee plant. It’s one that has the potential to rescue the world’s most beloved beverage from its current predicament. Coffee is under siege from all directions. Climate change, a deadly fungal disease that has decimated crops, and risky farming practises all pose threats to it. And at the heart of it all is a startling vulnerability: the coffee we cultivate and consume today, which supports a $100 billion industry, comes from just two species — and research on others is woefully behind.
Meanwhile, rising global temperatures are exacerbating production threats. “Climate change is a significant issue for coffee plants,” said Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who led the Sierra Leone search effort. That is because the plants require such specialised conditions in order to thrive. According to a 2014 study published in the journal Climatic Change, approximately half of the suitable areas for coffee cultivation could be lost by 2050 due to the climate crisis. This figure could be as high as 88 percent in Latin America, which produces approximately 60% of the world’s coffee crop. Before the end of this century, the more widely cultivated — and better tasting — of the two species currently cultivated faces extinction in the wild.
It’s a well-known tale in the world of food. When farmers in Ireland began cultivating the “lumper” variety of potato (one of an estimated 4,000 potato varieties) in the 1800s, they probably had no idea a blight would eventually wipe out the entire crop and plunge the country into famine. And, while the loss of coffee would not necessarily result in mass starvation, it is critical for a great deal: hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers and coffee-processing jobs in the tropics, as well as the gross domestic product of several countries such as Nicaragua and Uganda. Not to mention that coffee fills 2 billion cups of joy each day worldwide.