High-quality coffee is threatened by climate change but a forgotten coffee species could resist to warmer temperatures and still provide excellent flavor, potentially alleviating the coffee industry from future challenges.
Coffee crops in danger with global warming
Coffea stenophylla, a rare wild coffee species originating from Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast could be a potential alternative to Arabica coffee as global temperatures rise over the next years.
Arabica and Robusta beans make up most of the world coffee market. And the former is indeed threatened by global warming.
Arabica is a coffee species growing on tropical highlands, at an altitude between 1,000 and 2,000 meters with an optimal mean temperature around 18-22 degrees Celsius. An increase of temperature between 2 and 3 degrees Celsius would push Arabica crops up into the mountains. It would completely modify the areas of production of high-quality coffee.
Robusta is more robust at its name suggests. Not only to coffee leaf rust but also can it grow accross wet-tropical climates, at altitude below 1,500 meters. It resists to higher temperatures, between 24-26 degrees Celsius and perhaps higher than 30 degrees.
But it is still sensitive to wam temperatures and its yield is more optimal below 22 degrees Celsius.
Higher temperatures disrupting the coffee market
Arabica is much more flavorful. Its price is also tastier. And high-quality coffee is a driver of more sustainable revenue for coffee producers who are mostly smallholders.
The potential area for producing coffee could decrease by 15% by 2050. Moreover, about half of land suitable for high-quality coffee in the world could become unproductive by 2050.
Such shift would reshape the economy of countries within the Coffee Belt. “Coffee drives a multibillion dollar global industry, supports the economy of several tropical countries, and provides livelihoods for more than 100 million coffee farmers,” says Dr Aaron Davis, lead author of the study published in the scientific review Nature.
Supply will be especially critical as coffee demand is forecasted to double by 2050.
A rare flavorful wild coffee species
There are about 120 coffee species and plenty of them can grow in the wild under similar conditions as the Robusta. However, none proved to have flavors suited for consumption standards.
The study found that the coffea stenophylla can grow under the same climatic conditions of Robusta coffee and still give Arabica-quality flavors. Wild coffee doesn’t usually taste great but this one was different. “We were completely blown away by the fact that this coffee tasted amazing” told Dr Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew told the BBC.
Coffea stenophylla had not been recorded in the wild since 1954 but was rediscovered in Sierra Leone in 2018.
The potential for mass production from the seeds is still uncertain. It would require a few years to farm this species or use it with cross-breeding for larger production volumes. The beans would likely be only a niche market in the next 5-7 years, before potentially scaling up to a larger customer base.
Media sources and useful links:
- Arabica-like flavour in a heat-tolerant wild coffee species, Nature, April 2021, Restricted access
- Lost and Found: Coffea stenophylla and C. affinis, the Forgotten Coffee Crop Species of West Africa, Frontiers, May 2020, Free access
- Projected Shifts in Coffea arabica Suitability among Major Global Producing Regions Due to Climate Change, Plos One, 2015, Free access
- Not so robust: Robusta coffee production is highly sensitive to temperature, Wiley, 2020, Free access
- Climate change: Future-proofing coffee in a warming world, BBC, April 2021, Free access
- Your Morning Cup of Coffee Is in Danger. Can the Industry Adapt in Time?, Time, 2018, Free access