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Coffee Beans Could Be Extinct In 60 Years; Then What?

Climate change and deforestation could lead to the loss of Arabica beans on a vast scale like these shown on a Nicaraguan farm.
Climate change and deforestation could lead to the loss of Arabica beans on a vast scale like these shown on a Nicaraguan farm.

If you believe the news from over the weekend that coffee beans are in danger of extinction, you're probably hoarding all the Arabica you can find today and envisioning a future in which coffee -- already liquid gold for many of us caffeine addicts -- can be used as delicious, fragrant currency.

Not so fast, though: First of all, it's not all coffee that's in danger of a die-out. It's the wild Arabica beans that grow in places like Ethiopia, Brazil and Colombia, according to a recent study between British and Ethiopian researchers published in PLoS One. Granted, this type of bean is used to make 70 percent of the world's coffee -- but that's not a full-scale extinction event.

The study itself even admits that full-on extinction is at the red alert end of the scale. "[T]he most favourable outcome is a...65 percent reduction in the number of pre-existing bioclimatically suitable localities," the study reads, "and at worst an almost 100 percent reduction, by 2080."

What is scary is that the decline of Arabica beans is being linked to man-made occurrences: climate change and the deforestation of coffee-growing regions. Global warming, the study said, will reduce the amount of "bioclimatically suitable localities" while aggressive deforestation in places like Ethiopia and Brazil only serves to reduce those locations even further.

The yield of Arabica coffee in Colombia alone last year was at an all-time record low.
The yield of Arabica coffee in Colombia alone last year was at an all-time record low.
Photo by José Eduardo Deboni

The Huffington Post is quick to point out that wild coffee beans aren't typically used in commercially processed coffee -- so what's the big deal? The big deal, of course, is genetic diversity. Most strains of domesticated coffee beans are -- as with every other domestically grown crop -- not as genetically diverse as plants found in the wild. Domestic crops have been engineered over time to be adaptable to a range of climates and produce high yields, but this has led crops to be incredibly weak and fragile in other areas. They are especially susceptible to disease, as anyone who loves bananas knows.

The banana that most people purchase at American grocery stores is the Cavendish banana, and it's not the banana that our grandparents grew up eating. It replaced the Gros Michel banana that was nearly wiped out in the 1950s by Panama Disease.

Now, that same disease threatens the Cavendish, because -- like the Gros Michel -- each banana is genetically identical to every other Cavendish banana, and has been for decades. The bananas reproduce asexually, through a method called "vegetative propagation" that ensures specific varieties of fruits and vegetables will all look and taste the same -- homogeneity is key in stocking grocery store shelves, after all. But this also means that the plants have no opportunity to evolve any sort of disease or pest resistance over time, thus remaining in a fragile balance that is wholly dependent on pesticides and other forms of human intervention. But even that is often not enough to save crops from failing wholesale.

Ask your grandparents if they remember "old" bananas, like the Gros Michels seen here.
Ask your grandparents if they remember "old" bananas, like the Gros Michels seen here.

This is the reason that seed banks store precious bits of life (when and where they're allowed to do so) meant to replace or re-engineer plants that have died out in this way. It's the same reason that heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables are more than just hipster foodie buzzwords. Heirloom crops contain the sort of genetic diversity vital to helping scientists "protect the world's future food supply," as National Geographic put it in an impactful cover story last year. Wrote Charles Siebert for the magazine:

A crisis is looming: To feed our growing population, we'll need to double food production. Yet crop yields aren't increasing fast enough, and climate change and new diseases threaten the limited varieties we've come to depend on for food. Luckily we still have the seeds and breeds to ensure our future food supply -- but we must take steps to save them.

Although coffee wasn't mentioned at the time in Siebert's article, it's yet another crop to add to the growing list of plants that need our protection. Will we step up in time? Or will our grandchildren be drinking acorn coffee while talking about the good old days of Arabica beans and Cavendish bananas?



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