Imagine a world without coffee – Most of us cannot imagine a day without [tippy title=”America’s favorite drink”]Americans spend $18 billion on coffee annually. Click HERE for more fun coffee statistics.[/tippy], yet the world’s coffee production faces threats from many directions, the most serious, global warming, decreased genetic diversity, and deforestation.
Arabica, which constitutes 70% of coffee consumption in the world, is a very special coffee plant hybrid that resulted when two different species combined over a million years ago in a forest in Ethiopia. This was a rare [tippy title=”natural hybridization”]Hybridization refers to the interbreeding to two distinct cultivars. Unlike animal hybrids which are typically sterile, plant hybrids often produce seeds prolifically[/tippy] that happened only once. When this plant was taken out of Ethiopia to other parts of the world, it’s genetic diversity was greatly diminished which resulted in a decreased tolerance to pests and diseases. Lack of genetic diversity can be compared to inbreeding among humans and animals. The results are often weaker and defective.
We may like our coffee hot but coffee plants do not like the heat. There are reasons better grades of coffee are marketed as “shade grown”. The arabica plant prefers to grow in the shade and even a one degree increase in temperature will change the taste of the coffee completely. However, even shade may not be enough to protect the world’s coffee plants from the impact of increasing temperatures. The coffee berry borer, Hypothenemus hampei, found in East Africa regions can lower coffee production by more than a third. These pests are found less often at higher elevations but as temperatures have increased the borer has moved into these higher altitudes. Ethiopia has been greatly affected by global warming as have the plants there. Temperatures are projected to continue to rise and coffee borer infestations in this area are also expected to increase.
Coffee plants were first grown in Africa as an undercrop, covered by diverse shade trees that provided natural habitat for a wide range of birds, insects and animals. Small farmers there used sustainable agricultural techniques such as [tippy title=”coffee pulp mulch”]During processing, the outer fruit and mucilaginous outer cover of the bean is removed. Once composted, this former waste material has high amounts of nutrients: 1.7% nitrogen, 0.05% phosphorous, 1.06% potassium.[/tippy] and crop rotation. Since they could not afford expensive chemicals and fertilizers, plants were grown without these harmful additives. However, as a result of the “Green Revolution” of the 1970′s and 1980′s, a $80 million dollar grant from the US Agency for International Development and other groups to replace traditional shade grown farming with “sun cultivation” and the general shift to more technical methods of agriculture, all introduced to increase yield, vast forests were destroyed and “sun cultivation” employed. This method which destroyed trees, used monocropping and the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, led to severe environmental problems such as pesticide pollution, deforestation and extinction of a natural habitat for many animals, birds and insects. It also decreased bio-diversity.
The impact of the loss of the US’s largest food import and the second most valuable traded commodity, only surpassed by petroleum would be immeasurable. While we would most likely eventually find a satisfactory substitute, the economic impact worldwide would be catastrophic.