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Coffee Tree Extinction and the Caffeine Blues

What lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, boosts your brain cells and adds years to your life? Health experts will tell you that would be coffee. A morning cup of Joe not only gives many of us the jolt we need to face the day ahead but it’s just plain damn good for you. Perhaps this is why scientists are issuing a dreaded warning: coffee tree extinction is on the horizon.

For the last 20 years, scientists have been studying the coffee bean which really does grow on trees. But research now shows that 60% of the coffee trees around the world are rapidly leaving the planet due to disease, deforestation – and dare we say, climate change.

Even if you throw out that last one – the climate change business – something is definitely going on with coffee trees that is rather distressing. While this news may come as a tragedy to those of us who live quite happily with our caffeine addiction, there are other worrisome aspects to this news.

Coffee is Big Business

Widely consumed, coffee is a multibillion-dollar business. As of 2015, coffee represented a $225.2B industry in the United States. American consumers spent $74.2B on coffee in that calendar year which supported 1,694,710 coffee-related jobs. The National Coffee Association also estimates that the government rakes in $28B in taxes on coffee products.

Your cup of java is primarily made up of two types of coffee trees: Arabica (Coffea arabica) which represents 60% of the crop consumed. The other 40% is composed of Robusta (Coffea canephora). There are other smaller types of coffee species – a total of 124 to be exact – but these two represent the mother-lode of coffee that is farmed, traded and shipped to consumers worldwide.

Arabica and Robusta are the world leaders in coffee bean consumption because of their great taste and caffeine content. Believe it or not, many coffee bean trees have little or no caffeine, which largely defeats the purpose of coffee consumption. Some coffee drinkers simply like the taste, but a majority of those who drink coffee do so because of the effect caffeine has on the mind and body.

Threatening these crops is a fungal pathogen that has been spreading among coffee trees along with something called coffee wilt disease. And of course, there are natural causes such as droughts in coffee-rich countries. According to a comprehensive study conducted by the Science Advances Journal, 75 coffee species or 60% of the crop is “threatened” with extinction, 13 species are “critically” endangered, another 40 are considered “endangered,” and finally they list 22 species of coffee trees as “vulnerable.”

These figures are significantly elevated when compared to the risk of extinction for other plants. Scientists say the global figure of extinction for all plants is only 22%. Pistachios, for example, carry only a 9% risk of annihilation and hazelnuts only 6%. This drives home the point that coffee trees are dying off at an unusually high rate.

Don’t Panic Yet

One good thing about coffee is the species of trees that may die off still have the potential to be used for coffee breeding purposes. This means they can be manipulated in such a way as to reproduce coffees for the future.  Horticulturalists believe they can do this by working with a variety of trees that tend to be more disease-resistant and able to withstand harsh climate conditions. Eventually, this will result in a hardy coffee crop with enhanced sustainability.

At this point, there is no reason to panic. The thought that the worldwide coffee crop will come to an early demise during your lifetime is unlikely. As with most things, awareness of the problem is half the battle as scientists appear to be ready to issue a fatwa on coffee bean extinction.

A full-court press is on to save man’s second-best friend that keeps so many of us healthy and wise. It’s often said, “if we can put a man on the moon” then we can do just about anything. Let’s hope that notion expands to include saving the coffee tree from extinction – for a world without coffee would unquestionably doom humanity to a sad and listless existence.

Read More From Leesa K. Donner

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