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Enjoy that cup of Arabica: The precarious future of the world’s favourite coffee bean

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From the deeper meaning behind ordering a double double to how we first got hooked on a java, Coffee Week features a fresh blend of everything you ever wanted to know about our nation’s favourite drink.

The quality of the coffee we drink has never been better, author Jeff Koehler says. But while demand for specialty coffee continues to grow, Arabica – the world’s favourite coffee bean – is in trouble. 

Arabica (Coffea arabica) accounts for roughly 70 per cent of the global supply and is widely considered superior to the other main cultivated species, Robusta (Coffea canephora). If you frequent specialty coffeeshops, 100 per cent Arabica is almost certainly your daily brew. Robusta may be included in the odd espresso blend, but artisanal coffee makers nearly exclusively favour Arabica for one reason: its superb flavour.

However, Robusta typically costs much less and can be grown at lower altitudes. It’s also higher in caffeine, which is thought to contribute to its hardiness. While Robusta is resilient, cultivated Arabica is “genetically impoverished,” Koehler emphasizes, making it more sensitive to climate change and prone to disease. If nothing is done, he says, there will be increasingly more Robusta and less Arabica. And that Arabica will likely cost more and taste worse. “That fine cup of Arabica is not necessarily going to be there in the (future). It’s precarious,” Koehler says. “It’s hard to look at the demand that’s ahead and the problems that it’s having today and somehow fit those together without using high-quality, traditional varietals of Arabica. It just doesn’t seem to go together.”

From a fungus known as coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix; a.k.a. roya in Spanish), which is ravaging production in Latin America – home to 85 per cent of Arabica – to the effects of global warming, the plight of one of the world’s most valuable and beloved commodities is cause for immediate concern. As Koehler highlights in his new book, Where the Wild Coffee Grows (Bloomsbury), it’s never been more crucial to look to Arabica’s Ethiopian roots – the forests of Kafa, “the world’s original coffee culture” – for ways to ensure its future. “The more I learned about the problems that coffee is having today, especially in Latin America, the more I realized that the future is linked back to those same forests,” Koehler says. “The closer to the origin of it you are, the more diversity you have. Arabica’s big problem is its lack of genetic diversity in most of the cultivated crops. And this is something that they’re just getting a handle on now.”

There are more than a thousand indigenous coffee varietals in Ethiopia’s cloud forests. But as part of a ground-breaking study by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew scientists and collaborators in Ethiopia found that climate change alone could lead to the extinction of wild Arabica by 2080. Kew’s recent follow-up study, examining coffee farming in Ethiopia, predicts that as much as 60 per cent of the nation’s coffee-growing area could become unfit within the century due to warming. “Arabica coffee originates from the highland forests of Ethiopia, and it is our gift to the world,” said Sebsebe Demissew, a senior botanical scientist at the University of Addis Ababa and co-author of the farming study. “As Ethiopia is the main natural storehouse of genetic diversity for Arabica coffee, what happens in Ethiopia could have long-term impacts for coffee farming globally.”

According to Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Kew, a deep understanding of Arabica’s wild ancestors – where they grow and their climatic tolerances – is key to addressing sustainability issues in cultivated coffee. “Certainly that was a big wake-up call,” Koehler says of the studies. “One of the great pleasures in life for me is coffee, and I’m certainly not alone. But beyond that element is how many millions and millions of people’s lives depend on those coffee beans.”

Ethiopia is currently the fifth largest producer of coffee in the world. There, coffee plantations are the exception, not the norm. Eighty per cent of the country’s Arabica is grown in forests or similar habitats, according to Kew. Crucially, coffee is the cornerstone of the economy; smallholder farmers depend on it for their livelihoods. “As somebody who’s been to Ethiopia many times and visited farms and farmers and talked to farmers, my main concern is with the farmers,” says Davis. “There are 15 million people in the coffee-producing sector in Ethiopia. Those are the people who are really going to be badly influenced by, or are being badly influenced by, our changing climate.”

Examining the effect of climate change on coffee is an emerging area of research, Davis says. It’s labour-intensive, costly and complex; the Kew team travelled extensively in Ethiopia to test their mapping models. He estimates that they covered 40,000 kilometres on 17 expeditions, conducting interviews and building climate stations where they logged conditions. “If we did that for the top ten coffee-producing countries globally, we’d have a really good idea of what was going on,” Davis adds. “Take a country like Ethiopia. If you look at the difference between adapting to making good decisions made on good science, the difference in income from exports for example, it’s staggering. Even under climate change, up to a four-fold (increase).”

As a premium product, Koehler believes there’s real value in more consumers knowing the story of Arabica coffee. In Where the Wild Coffee Grows, he shares details of its origins in isolated Kafa, chronicles its journey around the globe, and discusses possibilities for its future. Integral to this story is the parlous situation of the people producing it today. “You could take so many families – their coffee’s dead and they moved to the city in Honduras or El Salvador. There’s terrible violence so they send their kids with coyotes across the border,” Koehler says. “They’re part of this (migrant crisis) that we read about but we didn’t really understand why. This is one of the main reasons. They lost their money to buy staples. Coffee is such an important element and there’s almost nothing (being said about it).”

Davis highlights the disconnect that exists between the two ends of the value chain. Climate change isn’t an issue for coffee buyers today – if they can’t get coffee from one country or region, they’ll look elsewhere. Although we’re not in immediate danger of a coffee shortage, coffee farmers are already feeling the pressure. “You have farmers who have produced coffee all their lives and perhaps their families before them. What are they going to do next? Where do they transition to?” Davis says. “Coffee is their main income earner. What’s going to happen to those farmers? What can they grow? How can they make a living?”

While coffee farming is intimately linked to commerce – and sustainable practices can be incentivized financially – this isn’t the case for wild Arabica, Davis adds. Seeking to both preserve the genetic diversity in Ethiopia’s forests and improve livelihoods, he started a collaborative direct trade program in 2014. Established with partners in Ethiopia and Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in London, England, the program provides coffee farmers in southwest Ethiopia’s Yayu Forest Reserve with access to market for high-quality, wild Arabica. “It’s all well and good designating a nature reserve but people still need land to earn a living,” Davis says. “The farmers are getting paid about 300 per cent what they were before. And this then puts a real value on the forest. A real explicit value because that’s where the coffee’s produced.”

Two Yayu Project microlots are currently available from Union Hand-Roasted Coffee: achibo, with notes of loquat, peach and marzipan; and wutete, which tastes of candied lemon, nectarine and honeysuckle. A 200-gram bag sells for $12 (or a 1-kilogram bag for $58). Consumer power can make a positive impact, Davis adds. Buying sustainable products at an elevated price makes a big difference to smallholder farmers.

Ethiopian Arabica is more expensive in general than coffee from many other regions, Koehler says, but it’s almost exclusively what he drinks. Primarily because he prefers the pronounced fruitiness, particularly present in natural coffees where the coffee cherries have been dried whole (i.e. the beans remain inside the fruit). “It’s really extremely good coffee. And there’s also something special about coming from that place. (Ethiopians) have been growing this coffee for many, many, many generations,” Koehler says. “You could also say this is where coffee wants to grow. This is where it naturally thrives. It wasn’t introduced. It spread, sure but this is its natural home. It’s its original home but its natural home also.”

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