Articles, Blog

Beyond the Gardens: The Forgotten Home of Coffee

November 30, 2019

Do you like coffee? I love coffee. Do you like coffee? I love coffee. I had a cup of coffee which changed my life. Drinking coffee is one of life’s pleasures. I like the taste. Simply the smell, I just find the smell of
roasted coffee one of the most fascinating things out there. You wake up in the morning and you say, okay, I can’t talk to anybody until I’ve had my first cup of coffee. Want anything special for your birthday? Just a decent cup of coffee. Although there are now 125 species of coffee, we only actually use 2 species to produce the beverage coffee, the drink. There’s Arabica coffee and there’s Robusta
coffee. Arabica is a very special plant. It’s actually a hybrid formed between two
quite different species. Those plants came together in a forest somewhere,
maybe a million years ago, maybe 50,000 years ago – we don’t exactly know. It appears that that union happened
just once. It’s a very special plant in that respect. One of the things thats not generally very
well known is the fact that Arabica coffee originated in Ethiopia. Thats it’s natural home. From the 15th century onwards, it was taken
out of Ethiopia via Yemen to South East Asia, to Central America to South America. During that process, the genetic diversity
of Arabica was greatly diminished because in many places, plantations were established
on a single plant. The problem with that is that those plantations
have very low genetic diversity. If you have low genetic diversity you have
low tolerance to pests and diseases. Everywhere else in the world grows coffee
and does really well at it and it tastes really nice, but when that has a problem, where do
you go? The answer is Ethiopia, where it all started. In all of the plantations around the world,
there was less than 1 percent of the genetic variation you can find today in Ethiopia today. Aaron approached me with some ideas of what
was happening with coffee in the wild and saying we’re getting a lot of reports from farmers saying that coffee is starting to degrade at lower altitudes. In Ethiopia specifically, the climate is changing
quite a lot. It’s about 1 degree change in temperature and then that changes the taste of coffee completely. We don’t have measurements of the impact of
climate change, so we need to put in place a monitoring system to understand the effects
of climate change. Not predictions, but actually what is happening. Are there signs of stress? Are there signs of extra disease or anything
else going on thats effecting that coffee? Unless we do that, we won’t understand what
is happening and we won’t be able to do anything about it. We’re here in a semi forest coffee production
area and we’re looking at some very stressed plants. It’s 32 degrees which is too hot for optimum
coffee production. The leaves are wilting and in some cases they
are just falling off. The model had done a really good job of identifying
a lot of those coffee areas. Its saying that that plot of forest coffee,
by 2080, is not going to be good for forest coffee any more. When we published this paper, we were quite
surprised by the publicity for it. It was absolutely huge. Looking at 800,000 tweets, a thousand facebook
hits. The birth of coffee starting in Ethiopia – that
was something that I had not heard about. I couldn’t imagine a day when we couldn’t
get coffee from Ethiopia. The whole of coffee research at Kew has gathered huge momentum, so now we are deeply embedded in industry issues. What we can supply, the information we can
supply to the people out there from Kew’s historic base, is incredibly important for
making decisions on where we conserve, where we put our effort in. lots of people say to me, it’s just a beverage, its just a drink. So what? The so what is, coffee production supports the livelihoods of 25 million farming families worldwide. That’s more than 100 million people, which
is just incredible. They say something like 32 different pairs
of hands are involved from picking coffee to making a cup of coffee. The environment will not be the same in 2080
as it is now. We actually may know what the environment
might be, so we can actually say if you’re going to really look after coffee, do it here. Or actually, look at moving it here. Something can be done about it. We have the information and we have the time
as well.


  • Reply The Detallista June 5, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Very powerful. Thanks for research and work you are putting into these educational pieces!

  • Reply Cameron Prince June 6, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Potent warning. Great insight, thank you.

  • Reply Rupert Rivett June 7, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    As the exponential growth of the human species further destroys and consumes the earths finite natural resources. The changing taste or even end of the coffee bean will be the least of humanities problems. After all the many in the future will have very little water available to make coffee in the first place

    Well done to the kew Gardens for making a film that has so many layers of intrigue hopefully this film will make people think when they slurp on their latte in star bucks or Costa Coffee.

  • Reply Henk Beentje June 10, 2013 at 7:26 am

    excellent, and scary.
    Very nicely made clip!

  • Reply Kassahun K. Suleman June 19, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    Thanks for making such an insightful video. We all know that Ethiopia is the birthplace of Coffee Arabica and the the south western part of the country is endowed with diverse and abundant coffee genetic. It is not late to conserve the remaining wild coffee but research should first identify why the previous conservation continuum fails? I say its due to the strict and exclusionary conservation approach, the protected area. Better to think about the ongoing social-economic phenomena as well.

  • Reply Kassahun K. Suleman June 19, 2013 at 11:31 pm

    The issue in the video is about the link between climate change and the prospects of the wild coffee Arabica population in Ethiopia. I don't know why you mentioned about Brazil's coffee production extent. Its a plain fact that Ethiopia is the cradle of coffee arabica. Thanks Kew Gardens for challenging such an orthodox ideology.

  • Reply featheredfan June 20, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    I'm drinking coffee right now and I'm so glad you guys are checking this out. I understand that the chocolate tree, Theobroma cocoa has s similar genetic disposition. Also, aren't some apple trees and other crops in need of more diversity? Are the botanic gardens around the world and many breeders helping to increase the amount of stronger plants at these plantations? I'm letting the bees do all of the cactus breeding for now. Thanks

  • Reply Editions Brandon August 1, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Le jour où il n'y aura plus de café… Quelle horreur !

  • Reply Maja Horvat December 1, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    This short video is worth watching!

  • Reply Kris Barnes October 21, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    a bit late to the scene, but brilliant short – wish there was more information on Robusta beans

  • Reply LOVE OF PLANTS 🌻 July 5, 2018 at 10:24 pm

    Starbucks and other big coffee traders are currently spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to address this situation.

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