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Wild coffee faces extinction

From the March 2019 issue.

Researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have determined that more than half of all wild coffee species are in danger of extinction. Dr Aaron Davis tells Global Coffee Report what this means for the wider coffee industry.

Dr Aaron Davis was not sure what he would find when he joined an expedition into the wilderness of Sierra Leone in December 2018.

The Head of Coffee Research at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew travelled to West Africa to search for the fabled highland coffee of Sierra Leone, known to the scientific community as Coffea stenophylla.

The coffee had not been seen since the 1950s, and after lengthy communications with Professor Jeremy Hagar of the University of Greenwich, the men became determined to find it.

“This coffee from Sierra Leone is something that I’ve been interested in for many years, and so have other people,” Davis tells Global Coffee Report.

“The interest is mostly founded on books from the late 1800s and early 1900s, which clearly state this is a coffee with an incredible flavour. There is one account that says it tastes better than Arabica.

“Immediately, the bells start ringing, ‘something better than Arabica? Really?’ That instantly makes anyone interested in coffee excited, and it’s a really compelling story. I’ve always wanted to go to Sierra Leone to see this coffee, where it grows, and as a coffee drinker, taste it.”

Davis and Hagar’s search began at farms in the area, where they hoped to find a fruiting coffee plant from which they could test the coffee. After multiple unsuccessful attempts, Davis knew they had to start looking in the wild to find the elusive coffee.

“There has been a lot of deforestation in Sierra Leone, so Jeremy and I knew we may not find it. We tried lots of different routes to reach the wild places where this coffee was last seen, and eventually, we found one plant,” he says.

“One plant is exciting, but if you remember your coffee biology, apart from Arabica, most species are self-incompatible, meaning it needs another individual to cross-pollinate with to produce fruits. You can’t produce coffee from one tree.”

The team continued its search, eventually discovering a small population of the highland coffee several hours east of the first location at the exact same altitude.

“The unfortunate thing was that there was no fruit, so we could not evaluate the sensory attributes of the coffee,” Davis says. “We were able to take some material, which is now being grown in Sierra Leone. It looks like we may have to wait at least four years before we can do our evaluation.”

C. stenophylla is one of the 75 wild coffee species Kew revealed was under threat of extinction in research published in Science Advances in January, 2019.

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