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Ethiopia’s gift to the world – is it too late to save coffee?

In a ground-breaking paper published this week, Kew scientists, along with collaborators in Ethiopia, describe the impact of climate change on coffee farming in Ethiopia.

The research predicts that up to 60% of the current coffee-growing area of Ethiopia could become unsuitable by the end of this century, if warming continues. Already, the average temperature in Ethiopia has increased by 1.3 °C between 1960 and 2006, with indications that there has been also been a reduction in rainfall in some coffee growing areas. According to climate models the increases in temperatures are projected to continue.

Kew scientist and co-leader of the study, Justin Moat, said: “Timely, precise, science-based decision making is required now and over the coming decades to ensure sustainability and resilience for the Ethiopian coffee sector.”

The research also looked at building a climate change resilient coffee economy for Ethiopia. The study found that if coffee-growing areas were relocated, Ethiopia could see a fourfold increase in coffee production even under climate change. This would, however, require a major shift in the coffee growing landscape, mostly to higher altitudes, as temperatures increase.

Kew’s Dr Aaron Davis, co-leader of the research, said: “We now have a clear vision of what needs to be done to make the Ethiopian coffee sector climate resilient, at least until the end of this century…. however the only truly sustainable solution is to combat the root causes of climate change.”

Arabica coffee (Coffea arabica) originated in Ethiopia – the fifth largest producer of coffee in the world. In the highlands of Ethiopia, wild Arabica coffee is a forest plant – in fact, 80% of Ethiopia’s coffee is grown in forests or forest-like habitats. Coffee has been used as a food and beverage in Ethiopia for many hundreds, if not thousands, of years and coffee production makes up a quarter of the country’s export earnings, providing livelihoods for around 15 million Ethiopians, about 15% of the population.

Professor Sebsebe Demissew, a senior botanical scientist from the University of Addis Ababa and a co-author of the research said: “Arabica coffee originates from the highland forests of Ethiopia, and it is our gift to the world. As Ethiopia is the main natural storehouse of genetic diversity for Arabica coffee, what happens in Ethiopia could have long-term impacts for coffee farming globally.”

The paper, published Monday 19 June in Nature Plants, is called ‘Resilience potential of the Ethiopian coffee sector under climate change’.

Moat*, J., Williams*, J., Baena*, S., Wilkinson*, T., Gole, T.W., Challa, Z.K., Demissew, S., & Davis*, A.P. (2017). Resilience potential of the Ethiopian coffee sector under climate change. Nature Plants 3: 17081 DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.81. Available online

Accompanying report

Moat*, J., Williams*, J., Baena*, S., Wilkinson*, Demissew, S., Challa, Z.K., T., Gole, T.W. & Davis*, A.P. (2017). Coffee Farming and Climate Change in Ethiopia: Impacts, Forecasts, Resilience and Opportunities. Summary Report 2017. The Strategic Climate Institutions Programme (SCIP). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (UK). Pp. 37. Available online