Coffea Stenophylla - Coffee’s Future Success in a Climate Changing World?
The consequences of global climate change are sadly becoming more evident as each year passes, with weather extremes, floods and drought wreaking havoc across the world. Such damaging effects are becoming a cause for concern to the 100 million coffee farmers who rely on coffee cultivation for their livelihoods, as well as all those involved in coffee production. Climate change is a threat to the two main species of coffee grown - Arabica (Coffea arabica) and Robusta (Coffea canephora). Arabica trees produce the best quality beans, but generally need to grow at high elevations in cool temperatures; Robusta trees are hardier, but the coffee they produce is often inferior in quality. As well as reducing the amount of land suitable for coffee cultivation, increasingly warm and humid weather provides ideal conditions for the enemy of the coffee plant, coffee berry borer, and diseases such as coffee leaf rust, a fungus that has been known to completely decimate coffee crops. Action clearly needs to be taken to future-proof the coffee industry against the devastation of climate change.
Some recent news, however, may give us reason to feel a bit more optimistic about the future of coffee. It’s about a rare, wild coffee species called Coffea stenophylla, a native plant of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast. Not only does Coffea stenophylla produce amazing tasting coffee; its flavour is considered to be on a par with the finest Arabica beans, but it also has attributes that make it far more likely to thrive in the face of climate change, and have more resistance to pests and diseases. Coffee stenophylla plants grow up to 20 feet and bear narrow, pointed leaves and dark purple/black berries, rather than the usual bright red berries of Arabica and Robusta varieties. Its beans have the kind of complex flavour profile found in the best Arabica coffees, with naturally sweet, fruity flavours and a medium-high acidity.
To call Coffea stenophylla a new coffee would be incorrect, since it was first discovered in Sierra Leone in the 18th century by Swedish botanist, Adam Afzelius, at a time when botany was one of the most popular fields of science and there was great interest in wild coffee plants. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew purchased a farm in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and Coffee stenophylla was one of the coffees grown there. Specimen plants were sent to a number of other countries, including Trinidad, Uganda and Costa Rica. Coffee stenophylla was traded internationally from the late 19th century and was known as ‘Highland Coffee of Sierra Leone’. It was particularly liked by the French, and recognised as being as good as a high quality Arabica coffee. By the 1920s, however, production had ceased, possibly because of low productivity. The species seemed to disappear and it became known as ‘the lost’ or ‘forgotten’ coffee of Sierra Leone. Over the years, it is thought to have become a rare species, and in danger of extinction by the effects of deforestation, disease, pests and human encroachment. There had been no record of it since 1954, but in recent years there’s been a renewed interest in the species.
In 2018, Dr Aaron Davis, Head of Coffee Research at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and botanist Professor Jeremy Haggar of the University of Greenwich, working with development specialist Daniel Sarmu, went on an expedition to the forests of the Kasewe Hills in Sierra Leone to search for the lost coffee, and successfully found a single plant in one place and a small population of them in another.
Dr Davis has suggested this delicious coffee could once again be grown commercially in Sierra Leone, possibly in larger quantities, and because it’s been shown to grow well in hot, dry conditions, it may succeed in other warm countries where high quality coffee production is not yet possible. There are plans to carry out breeding programs and for seedlings to be planted sometime this year, and buyers are already showing an interest. He thinks the venture could start off in a small way, with small quantities of coffee being produced for a niche market, but the hope is it will flourish and in time its popularity will enable it to benefit millions of coffee farmers worldwide.