60 Percent of Coffee Species Are in Danger of Extinction — Here's What It Means for Your Morning Cup

“Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee” is a cliché that’s likely led to more HR incidents than laughs. But it’s supposed to be funny because it’s true. Most workplaces run on coffee, and the thought of going without a cup of joe to jumpstart productivity sends a lot of people into a panic.

That’s why this week’s headlines are so alarming: “World's coffee under threat, say experts,” the BBC proclaimed. “Coffee extinction: Global warming threatens top coffee species” went USA Today’s more dire-sounding take. The gist: A new study found that as many as 60 percent of the world’s coffee species are at risk of extinction.

Clearly, any story that suggests “extinction” is not good news, but — at the risk of debasing the conversation — what does this mean for your average coffee drinker? Do we really have to worry about a world without coffee? Are these stories more alarming or alarmist?


“Whether there is cause for worry depends a lot on one's perspective as a coffee consumer and level of interest in both flavor diversity and small-scale farmer livelihoods,” Geoff Watts, vice president of coffee at the well-known third-wave roaster Intelligentsia, told me via email. “One way or another, the commercial industry will be able to adapt and continue producing coffee. People will still get their lattes, coffee will be available. But what kind of coffee is produced, who produces it and under what conditions it is grown are the open question. Coffee drinkers who love coffee for its range of taste should be concerned, along with those who want to see small-scale coffee farming continue in the areas where it’s traditionally cultivated.”

 
If there’s a silver lining to all of this cloudy news, it’s that Watts believes that, in the short-term, coffee drinkers won’t notice any difference. Al Liu, vice president of coffee for Milwaukee-based roaster Colectivo, presented a similar sentiment. “Practically speaking, I don't think that consumers will see any impact from these wild coffee species being threatened with extinction, as there are multiple cultivars of the Arabica species alone that are both commercially viable and deemed to possess a cup quality worthy of the specialty coffee market,” he explained.

But just because average consumers won’t see an impact, doesn’t mean there isn’t cause for alarm. “This news concerns me because there is still so much we don't know about wild coffees and its potential uses and applications on a broader scale,” Liu continued.


Watts echoed that concern. “As wild coffees become extinct, we forever lose the potential to discover new tastes and locate coffees that have evolved with more durability,” he said. “Durable coffees are critical for farmers in the face of a changing climate and vital in the effort to develop coffee types that are both high in quality and can work well in agroforestry systems.  None of us want to see a future where coffee is produced almost exclusively from a small handful of resistant varieties on an industrial scale.”

Meanwhile, Andrea Illy, Chairman of Italian roaster Illycaffè, suggested that, in some ways, we’re already seeing the negative ramifications of global warming, even if they aren’t as intense as extinction. “Climate-induced threat to coffee, especially to higher quality, less resilient Arabica beans, is real and already making an impact,” he said. “Some areas very close to the equator where Arabica formerly thrived can no longer support production at scale, for example. And generally speaking, the higher frequency of severe weather events is a big culprit and already having a tangible effect on pricing. Adapting to climate change is possible but it requires a substantial increase of investments for better agronomical practices, plant renovation and new growing areas.”

Overall, coffee as a beverage isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but all the strides we’ve taken towards producing better and more interesting coffee, well, climate change appears poised to start wiping some of those gains away.


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