The Race to Protect the Gene Pool Of Coffee

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – Ethiopia contains rugged highlands and lush, tropical forests, where the ‘coffea arabica’ grows in its original, wild form. The forests of southwest Ethiopia are considered to be the birthplace of coffee and the centre of its genetic diversity. Here we find Yayu, which is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, with a delicate interdependence between flora and fauna. It hosts thriving communities of bees which are vital for coffee tree pollination. Yet sadly, these forests and gene pool are under extreme pressure and is now one of the last major woodlands remaining in Ethiopia. Its deforestation over the past 40 years has resulted in the loss of one-third of the southwest’s forest cover. The world risks losing the forests entirely in coming decades and is critical that these forests are protected.

At the same time the world’s coffee demand has doubled but, as we know, the land available for production is decreasing. Higher yielding varieties that can withstand the effects of climate change are urgently needed, which is why Union is collaborating with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK to preserve wild Arabica coffee and improve livelihoods. Union is one of the UK’s most established craft coffee roasters and a recent winner of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise: Sustainable Development.

This joint project between Union and Kew aims to protect the gene pool of coffee at the Yayu Biosphere Reserve in Ethiopia. It will involve mapping the genetics of hundreds of undocumented wild Arabica varieties in the pristine Yayu forests. By fostering genetic diversity, the project will ensure a healthy gene pool, not only promoting interesting flavours, but also strengthening resistance to disease and climate; protecting Arabica for future generations. Union is working closely with five coffee cooperatives in Yayu, investing in training and infrastructure to ensure farmers have the expertise to improve coffee quality and build climate resilience.

Ethiopia is one of the world’s top coffee producing countries, delivering over 6.5 million bags annually. However, there are hardly any large-scale farms and cultivating coffee in Ethiopia, means you’re likely to be one of the 15 million smallholders with less than five hectares of land, or perhaps even growing it in your garden! In Yayu, coffee generates up to 70 percent of the income for over 90 percent of the population, but most farmers are struggling to make sufficient income from coffee due to global market volatility and climate change. Instead they’re turning to maize and the narcotic cash crop, khat, causing deforestation and ecosystem loss.

A study conducted by Kew with scientists in Ethiopia, confirms that climate change alone could lead to the extinction of wild Arabica coffee well before the end of this century and the worst case scenario, is that wild Arabica could be extinct by 2080. In a glimmer of hope, the World Coffee Research has created 46 hybrid varieties of coffees, which may be able to withstand the effects of climate change…and is why this Union and Kew partnership could just save our caffeine fix. 

Photo Credit