Research: The value of wild coffee

by JulieCraves on November 3, 2006

Hein, L. and F. Gratweiler. 2006.  The economic value of coffee (Coffea arabica) genetic resources. Ecological Economics 60:76-185.

This fascinating paper is not about the sort of ecological research I usually summarize here, but absolutely keeps with the theme of preserving biodiversity, as well as the recent Ethiopian thread that has come up here lately.

First, the authors introduce the importance of ancestral/wild genetic resources in agricultural crops, since careful breeding can impart in existing cultivars genes that can increase yields, confer disease resistance, and improve quality.  Wild coffee, and therefore its genetic resources, are only found where the species originated, in the highland forests of Ethiopia.  The paper highlights two urgent facts:

  • These forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, a rate at which, if it continues, will eliminate the forests in fewer than ten years.
  • Unlike many other plant seeds, coffee seeds are sensitive to cold and maintain their germination potential for only a couple of months.  Therefore, wild varieties are not candidates for seed banks. They must be preserved growing in the wild.

Although the benefits of preserving genetic resources is widely acknowledged, putting a monetary figure on these resources is difficult. The authors of this paper examined the potential economic benefits of preserving the genetic resources of coffee by looking at several characteristics that are known to occur in wild Ethiopian coffees: resistance to three major coffee pests/diseases, a variety with a lower caffeine content, and a higher yield variety.

They concluded that the economic value of Ethiopian coffee genetic resources is between US$420 million up to $1.45 billion (the variation reflects uncertainty in the coffee markets over the period of time it would take to incorporate wild genes into cultivars).  This does not take into account other beneficial characteristics that might be found in wild coffees, such as heat resistance that will be needed in the face of global climate change.

Current inventories of the genetic diversity in Ethiopian forests are inadequate to determine how much forest needs to be preserved in order to maintain the coffee gene pool, conclude the authors.  Certainly, we do not need to be replacing native forest and wild coffee with large plantations of nursery-grown plants. This paper provides significant economic evidence that preserving Ethiopian forests, and their wild coffee resources, are nearly priceless.

Revised on December 23, 2018

Posted in Birds and other biodiversity,Research on coffee growing

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