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Ethiopia's Vulnerable Tropical Forests are Key to Securing Future of Wild Coffee

Coffee is the drink of choice for millions of us. But the world’s second-most traded commodity originates in Ethiopia – and its home is under threat.

Ethiopia isn’t all dusty deserts – far from it. The country also contains rugged highlands and lush, tropical forests. Coffea arabica grows here in its original, wild form. The forests of south-west Ethiopia are considered to be the birthplace of coffee and the centre of its genetic diversity.

But these forests and this gene pool are under pressure. It is already one of the last major woodlands remaining in Ethiopia, and deforestation over the past 40 years has resulted in the loss of one-third of the south-west’s forest cover. We risk losing the forests entirely in coming decades.

It is critical that these forests are protected. Commercially grown coffee has been bred over the years to ensure high yields and other useful characteristics. But it is descended from a small number of individual plants, and so relies on a relatively narrow genetic range – just 10% of the diversity found in the wild. This makes it vulnerable to pests – and climate change is an additional threat.

Wild coffee on the other hand exhibits much greater genetic diversity, which increases its chances of adapting to new challenges and reduces the possibility of extinction. It represents an insurance policy for plantation coffee, in case commercial strains are ever badly damaged.

Rafael Medina

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