On the hunt for a new species of coffee

The search for a tasty, climate change resistant coffee is running out of time...
26 April 2022

Interview with 

Dr. Aaron Davis, Kew Gardens




Coffees' future appears pretty bleak. That's in the words of someone who has traveled the world to document it. Dr. Aaron Davis, the senior research leader of 'Crops in Global Change' at Kew Gardens, who explains his work to Harry Lewis...

Aaron - Unlike many of the things that we either eat or drink, coffee is a perennial crop. It's a tree crop. It has to be in the ground for many, many years. It's not like an annual crop, like rice or wheat, where you can simply replant every year. If your crop is destroyed, let's say by drought, then you have to replant and it takes 4 - 5 years to get your crop back. That is, that's a huge issue for all farmers, particularly smallholder farmers.

Harry - Aaron says that farmers find themselves in this position could be encouraged to move to new locations where the conditions are more favourable, alter their practices, or try out a new species of coffee.

Aaron - All 3 scenarios require effort and investment. However, unless we do something about greenhouse gas emissions, none of those adaptation pathways will make any difference. Our main focus is changing the coffee crop itself. We don't want farmers to shift from coffee to another crop because that also creates difficulties. If you look at the coffee species that we drink, we drink 2 robusta arabica, however there are another 128 coffee species out there in the wild. What we are doing is we are looking at some key candidates that can be used to develop climate adapted crops rather quickly because we don't have a lot of time. That's, that's the other aspect to all this.

Harry - What are those coffees and what are their attributes that give them that potential?

Aaron - We are looking at coffees that have 'market potential'. When I say 'market potential', what I mean is coffees that are acceptable and desirable to consumers. What we've seen in the past are the production of coffees that were very good in terms of their farming attributes, high yield, disease resistance, etc, but the consumers didn't want to buy them because they didn't taste very good. In fact, some of them tasted quite awful. We are learning from those mistakes of history in that respect to find something that really satisfies consumer demand.

Harry - What were those species called?

Aaron - At the moment we are looking at 2 species in detail. One of those is stenophylla coffee. That's from west Africa. That's a really interesting species because it has 'a superior flavour'. It tastes like high quality arabica. The other main attribute is that it's extremely heat tolerant. It will crop and yield successfully at temperatures that are around 6-7 degrees Celsius higher than arabica that's the average mean temperature. The downside with stenophylla is it's a low yielder. We would work on that to try and improve yields and that's exactly what we're doing at the moment. I didn't mention the other species, which is liberica coffee. There we've got something that is heat tolerant, and it may be somewhat drought tolerant, we're doing those investigations right now. But what it does have is an extremely high yield and farmers really like growing it.

Harry - Aaron, you said you are off on what sounds a little bit like a, not to sensationalize it, but an Indiana Jones expedition for coffee. What does that entail? Is that literally dropping yourself where you think there's gonna be a new species or an old species that might fit the bill, hoping you find something.

Aaron - It's a bit more structured than that. In the past, I've been doing this for over 20 years, we were really just going to all the unexplored places in Africa and Madagascar, trying to understand how many species of coffee there were and what the diversity was like in the wild. Now we're more focused, we're going to specific places, looking for specific species with particular attributes that we think could be used for crop development. We are looking for shortcuts. We are looking at the long game, but we're also trying to get things into the supply chain as quickly as possible.

Harry - I mean, are there examples of places where this is becoming commercially viable? Is this something where these 2 species that you've spoken of realistically could take off?

Aaron - Yeah. We are working with Clifton Coffee over in Bristol and we're about to import a large volume of liberica from Uganda. That will go into the supply chain this year. In Sierra Leone, we're not that advanced, we're just at the planting stage. In Sierra Leone we only refound stenophylla at the end of 2018-2019. We've been building up stock, this year the planting will start, and then within 4 years we'll see the first crops. The idea is to get it into shops and cafes but also, perhaps more importantly, is to provide an approved coffee income for farmers and Sierra Leone.


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