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A wide-ranging natural history illuminates the pleasures and the plight of wild coffee

Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup

Jeff Koehler
Bloomsbury
2017
303 pp.
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The global seed bank in Svalbard, Norway, houses innumerable seeds, cuttings, and germ plasm belonging to hundreds of breadbasket crops such as wheat and rice (1). But at least one famous species is missing: coffee. Like most tropical plants, coffee has a recalcitrant seed—that is, it cannot go dormant to await the right conditions for successful germination. Thus, coffee is not (and likely never will be) put away for safekeeping in a so-called doomsday vault. This means that if we wish to continue to enjoy our daily cup of joe, it is essential that we protect the wild ecosystems in which coffee resides.

In his new book, Where the Wild Coffee Grows, food writer Jeff Koehler reverse-engineers the coffee in your cup to its origins, discovering much about the popular beverage’s perilous existence along the way. Although in large part a natural history, the book also incorporates anthropology, food science, genetics, travelogue, and economics.

Koehler charts the global spread of coffee cultivation, starting in the 15th century, and relates the cultural history of coffee houses, peaking with the ubiquity of one Seattle-based enterprise. Coffee connoisseurs will envy the many artisanal brews he enjoys along the way.

The father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, bestowed the name Coffea arabica on the species of coffee that would ultimately be consumed by the vast majority of the contemporary world (C. robusta is a hardier, but less desirable, runner-up species). In doing so, Linnaeus unwittingly misled generations of java jolters into believing that coffee originated in the Arabian Peninsula, an area hardly renowned for its rain forests.

Desert Arabs and Sufis are also credited with brewing the first coffee, allegedly after a goatherd saw his animals acting agitated after eating some of the fruit. All current evidence, however, suggests that the Kafa people of Ethiopia discovered coffee’s valuable properties, having made the plant’s “cherries” and leaves into beverages, food, and herbal medicines for centuries (this, in addition to lending their name to the popular drink).

Wild coffee evolved as a shade-seeker—not what we would infer from the sun-drenched plantations that currently prevail in up to 40 countries. Judging from historical records and genetic analyses, coffee cultivation began in Yemen, which required selecting drought-resistant wild strains from Ethiopia. These caught on elsewhere but at a cost: Full sun stresses plants, compromising coffee flavor, productivity, and longevity. Intact forest also helps control pests—another stressor for cultivated varieties.

Koehler does not mention the benefits conferred by shade-grown beans to local birds. The use of such beans is often designated on Fair Trade coffee brands, indicating to savvy consumers that their habit has less ecosystem impact than sun-grown, forest-razing crops.

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

A man transfers coffee beans to a basket in
Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia.

Botanists actually know very little about the biology of wild coffee, including much about its genetics, or how many species other than Arabica still exist. An increase in field studies, combined with recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge, will likely expand our understanding.
Drought and disease outbreaks occur frequently enough, one would think, to remind producers to avoid complacency. But the sheer number of plantations worldwide likely contributed to the feeling that we needn’t worry too much, at least until recently.

From 2008 to 2013, an incurable fungal disease called rust (“la roya”) devastated millions of acres of coffee in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. More than 200,000 jobs were lost. The economic fallout had wide but underreported sociopolitical repercussions, including a rise in the numbers of unaccompanied Central American minors entering the United States.

Scientists believe that the rust spores that precipitated the outbreak may have traveled over the Atlantic on clouds of African dust (2). Unfortunately, climate change will likely create more dust clouds and ground conditions favorable to contagion.

Cultivars (of any crop) lack the genetic diversity to deal with environmental variability. Wild populations, in contrast, are treasure troves of potential genetic safeguards against diseases and weather extremes. To forestall disaster for this multibillion-dollar industry, scientists must find more wild relatives in the forests where coffee was born.

Less than 4% of Ethiopia is still forested. What remains is vulnerable to commercial exploitation. The 2010 designation of Kafa’s primeval forest as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site should benefit the local people, plants, and animals that call that forest home. It also should allow coffee lovers to sleep a little more soundly (assuming they don’t indulge too much in celebration).

References

  1. D. Carrington, The Guardian, 19 May 2017.

  2. A. T. Evan et al., Nature 531, 493 (2016).

About the author

The author is a freelance science writer and culture critic based in Montreal.