— by Tiffany Plate, EcoMyths editorial adviser
Disappearing Act: Is Coffee Next on the Chopping Block?
There are already thousands of different tree species in the world, right? We’ve got the ones we need for wood, the ones for apples, the ones for cork. And you might think that through centuries of selective breeding, we’ve already produced trees with all the characteristics we need—not to mention the prettiest roses, the hardiest wheat and the most fragrant lilies.
So with this much control over biodiversity, it’s hard to believe that a plant as important to our everyday lives as (gasp!) coffee might actually be in danger of extinction. (And don’t worry if the word biodiversity sounds complicated—it can be. Read on to see how the case in point helps make it a little easier to understand.)
A recent study by researchers at England’s Royal Botanic Gardens analyzed projected climate models for the native range of Arabica coffee in western Ethiopia. They found that in as little as 65 years, a warming planet could make the vast majority (read: 99.7 percent) of wild Arabica coffee’s native habitat, well, uninhabitable—at least for the coffee plant.
Surely there are other species that can keep our French presses flowing, though, right?
Think again. Arabica makes up 70 percent of the global coffee market, meaning that the Arabica plant was probably the source of the cup of java you enjoyed this morning. It turns out that even with all our capacity for engineering plants (based on the knowledge we’ve gained from studying, well, biodiversity), the effects of climate change could hit our coffee tables sooner than we thought.
And coffee is just a drip in the biodiversity bucket. To learn more about why we should care about conserving as much plant diversity as possible, we chatted with a few experts in the field: Nicole Cavender, PhD, vice president of science and conservation and Andrew Hipp, PhD, plant systematist, both from The Morton Arboretum; Andrea Kramer, PhD, conservation scientist at Chicago Botanic Garden and executive director of Botanic Gardens Conservation International US; and Abigail Derby Lewis, PhD, conservation ecologist at The Field Museum.
Oh, Oh It’s Magic: Human’s Influential Role in Crop Evolution
First, let’s start with this long history we’ve had of creating the perfect plant species for our own uses. “The history of crop domestication is the history of winnowing down all the genetic diversity in a species to a few genotypes that are particularly useful to people,” says Hipp. Useful, yes, but creating these types of monocultures comes with certain risks, he adds.
Most of the crops we rely on for food or products come from a narrow genetic pool, explains Cavender. And if you look back at history—to monocultures of potatoes and bananas, for example—you’ll see that humans have been hugely affected by the vulnerability of these monocultures. “Focusing on monocultures that work really well in the climate we’re used to is not a good strategy for the future,” says Kramer.
Hipp cites the potato famine as one glaring example. “In Ireland the average person probably wasn’t thinking of the Andes, where domestic potatoes originated.” But the fact is that potatoes in the Andes retained a staggering amount of genetic diversity, with cultivars of every size, shape, and color. The potato that was by far the most commonly grown in Ireland represented a very small subset of this genetic diversity (notably, the “lumper”). Since genetic diversity brings with it the ability to respond to diverse threats, the genetically limited potato cultivars of Ireland were thus particularly vulnerable.
The emergence of potato blight (around 1845-1852, with origins in Mexico) thus wiped out an important crop that served as a staple for a large portion of the Irish population—and resulted in the reduction of the Irish population, either by emigration or death, by a full 25 percent. (For more on monocultures and the Irish Potato Famine, check this out.) The reality is that if there had been a wider variety of potatoes in Ireland at that time, the crop would likely have been more resilient, as it was in the rest of Europe.
It’s true that in the past wipeouts like these came at the hands of an insect or a disease (see also the current threat to banana monocultures). “But this is climate change, and it’s happening fast, perhaps faster than populations can adapt,” says Hipp. When there is more than one species of a particular type of crop or useful plant—what we call biodiversity—there is a greater likelihood that some species or populations of species will survive these attacks.
Keeping it Up Our Sleeves: Why Preserving Biodiversity is More Important Than Ever
“As you scale up the tree of life, at every level there’s genetic information that makes our lives richer. Biodiversity at all scales shapes the world we live in,” says Hipp. “That’s why you want to save as much of the gene pool as possible: You can’t predict what you’re going to need and when you’re going to need it. If you put all your eggs in one basket on any scale, you’re at risk.”
That goes for coffee, too. Hipp explains that coffee isn’t an atypical example of how a species might be wiped out because of habitat loss. “Lots of species are endemic to a small area,” says Hipp. “So as climate shifts, those populations are in danger of being snuffed out.”
“Climate change is so unpredictable,” adds Cavender. And if we narrow down the genetic profile of a crop to those we think are best, she says, a huge environmental change means the genetics we’ve created might not be the ones that can adapt. “We might have created, through breeding, a really fantastic crop. But by narrowing its gene pool, the genes may no longer be there to allow that crop to adapt to hotter summers or to change its flowering times to adapt to an earlier spring.”
And the truth is that we’ve been selectively breeding the coffee plant for centuries. “Waiting in line at Starbucks, people don’t realize that despite all the different flavors, the number of botanical varieties used to produce coffee is very small, with a narrow genetic base,” says Cavender. “Without preservation of the genetic diversity found in wild relatives, climate change may put the future of coffee in jeopardy.”
Dramatic, yes, but it serves as an important reminder that we are at the mercy of the climate.
Pay Attention to the Plants Behind the Curtain: Maintaining Plant Biodiversity for the Long Haul
It’s not just crop diversity that we should be worried about—the trees, grasses and shrubs in our local forest preserves are also a vital piece in the biodiversity puzzle. So just how are we ensuring that we’re doing everything we can to preserve biodiversity near and far? Through preserving land for conservation reserves, as well as through seed banks, strategic restoration work, and careful documentation of our current biodiversity.
“Right now there is such an urgent need to get things banked before we lose what we have,” says Andrea Kramer. Large seed banks such as the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank (which lives inside the Chicago Botanic Garden) relies on botanists and volunteers to collect, prepare, and x-ray seeds of everything from food crops to flower to trees so they can be documented and stored for the next 200–300 years. (Kramer adds that many botanic gardens have smaller seed banks on site—check your local seed bank to see if volunteers are needed to collect and process seeds.) The seeds play a pivotal role in all types of research, and will be very important as we’re looking for different species that are well suited to different climates and habitats, says Kramer.
They’ll be especially vital to future restoration work, since habitat with the most biodiversity is also most resilient to changing conditions. Over the last century a lot of diverse habitat—even in the US—has been destroyed, threatening wild relatives of food crops as well as the birds and bees that rely on that biodiversity. Indeed, less than 1 percent of tallgrass prairie habitat (“Which is incredibly diverse!” says Kramer) remains in Illinois. To fix this, work is happening around the country to restore habitat that supports a lot of species. But this is harder than it seems, and climate change isn’t helping matters. “Having seeds gives us hope that we can learn about and ultimately restore species to places where they’ve been lost,” says Kramer.
The Field Museum is also carefully adding to its collection of biodiversity from around the world through the Rapid Biological Inventories (RBIs) carried out by Museum researchers (check out their Restoring Earth exhibition for an interactive way to learn more about this work).
Abigail Derby Lewis, a member of the department responsible for the RBIs, explains how they work: A biological team and a social team go into a remote area where there is no baseline biodiversity information, say, in the jungles of Peru. A helicopter drops the biological team off in the middle of the jungle for three weeks. Each of the scientists collect inventories of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and plants, then reconnects with the social team, which has been assessing the strengths and aspirations of indigenous people in nearby villages.
They spend the three weeks finding the answers to questions about how the local communities interact with, depend on and help to maintain the natural resources in their surroundings. Together the two teams come up with recommendations for the local government about the best plan for preserving both natural resources and the livelihood of the local inhabitants. In 12 years of work in South America, the team’s efforts have led to the protection of 19 millions acres of wilderness in the Amazon headwaters.
Derby Lewis feels this model of documenting where biodiversity exists—along with humans’ cultural connections to nature—is more vital than ever in the face of climate change. The biological collections provide baseline information about where species have historically been found, essential data needed to understand how species are responding and whether they are shifting their ranges as the climate changes.
Species around the world face a laundry list of threats such as pollution, habitat fragmentation and degradation, invasive species, over harvesting, etc. And climate change amplifies these threats. “We may feel some of these threats in a more direct and personal way in the short-term (such as a shortage of our favorite cup of joe), but any species loss should be of great concern,” says Derby Lewis. “The biodiversity on this planet is a vast web of life that acts collectively to provide us with services we rely on, such as clean air, clean water, nutrient cycling and flood abatement.”
Climate change is making the difficult job of restoring and maintaining health in our ecosystem even harder, she adds. “The time to act is now if we want to ensure a quality of life for future generations.”
EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted
Even if it’s not in our backyard, species loss can seriously affect us. And with climate change producing new weather patterns and habitat changes that our food crops might not be able to adapt to, who knows what other ways our daily lives will be affected, risking even our daily cup of Arabica coffee.
One Green Thing
Help preserve biodiversity in your community! Landscape with native plants and grasses and maximize green spaces in your backyard or neighborhood to foster local biodiversity. Resources and regional lists of native plants are provided below.
More ways to help:
- Support a conservation organization (like The Nature Conservancy, SaveNature.org, or the Rainforest Alliance) that purchases land and promotes the protection of biodiversity through wildlife management, sustainable use, and local training.
- Check out the volunteering page on Chicago Wilderness’ website for info about workdays for various local organizations, or ways to help track biodiversity in the region.
The Multiplier Effect
If we all landscaped our yards with native plants and grasses instead of conventional grass, we’d dramatically increase the population and diversity of birds, butterflies and other insects that feed in our backyards.