A new book lays bare the popular myths about the beverage you sip daily
JEFF KOEHLER is an award-winning American food writer who has written books on the Mediterranean, the Iberian and Moroccan cuisines and one on Darjeeling tea. For his latest book, Where the Wild Coffee Grows, he travels to three continents to unravel the story of coffee. In doing so, he delves into subjects as disparate as history, geography, politics, economy, botany, agriculture, forestry and climate change and weaves a tale that is breathtaking in its scope and grandeur.
Koehler has written this book with certain goals in mind. The first is to dispel the damagingly false notion that coffee was an Arab discovery. Today, there is unassailable scientific evidence that wild coffee first grew in Africa. According to a 2007 paper, Towards a Phylogeny for Coffea, authored by a team of scientists, including Aaron P Davis of London’s Royal Botanical Gardens, whom Koehler quotes heavily, the genus Coffea “occurs naturally in tropical Africa, Madagascar, the Comoros and the Mascarenes (Mauritius and Reunion)”.
In Africa, coffee originated in the southwestern region of Kaffa in Ethiopia. Kaffa, a montane, heavily-forested area, has long been held to be the source of coffee. Kaffa—one of the suggested sources for the word “coffee”—was an erstwhile great African kingdom.
Here, coffee is so ingrained in the local culture that even toddlers sip the brew. Coffee trees grow in the wild in the cloud forests of Bonga, Mankira, Kombo, Gela and Boginda—all in Kaffa. There are numerous folklores about coffee in Kaffa. One of them is about Kaldi, a goatherd who “discovered” coffee after seeing his goats dancing energetically upon eating some strange crimson berries.
In anointing the Kafficho people as the discoverers of coffee, Koehler debunks earlier accounts of authors such as Alan Bennett Weinberg and Bonnie K Bealer. In their 2001 book, The World of Caffeine, they said that “no direct evidence has ever been found indicating where in Africa coffee grew or who among the natives might have used it as a stimulant or known about it there earlier than the seventeenth century”. At the same time, Koehler admits that there is no consensus as to how coffee spread across the world from Ethiopia.
Koehler devotes a large part of the book to the four threats that coffee is facing today—disease, poor genetic diversity, climate change and deforestation. As coffee leaf rust, a fungal disease, is destroying large swathes of plantations across the world, and climate change and deforestation threaten even worse consequences, he points to one solution: the cloud forests of Kaffa. This place, he says, could hold the answer to the challenges.
Koehler has many reasons to support his argument. Genetic diversity is highest at the point of origin or source. Kaffa’s forests are thus a rich storehouse from where new varieties can be bred, which may even take on the mighty coffee rust disease and also adapt to climate change. The key though, says Koehler, is to conserve such diverse hotspots. And for good reason. As the Ethiopian population swells, there is more pressure on forests.
Fortunately, there are some encouraging signs. For instance, Ethiopia, since 1991, implemented community-based forestry, giving communities a stake in the forests. In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the Kaffa forests a biosphere reserve, which has given it complete legal protection. Though it is a tad too long, Koehler’s book is a worthy addition to coffee literature.
Coffee will disappear due to climate changeJEFF KOEHLER speaks to Down To Earth
What are the biggest threats to coffee today?
Today, around 85 per cent of arabica (the dominant variety of coffee beans) is grown in Latin America, a region that is hard hit by a devastating fungus called coffee leaf rust. Climate change is aggravating its spread.
You say excessive production has changed the character of the coffee plant for the worse.
Arabica, by its nature, is a forest plant that grows under a canopy of shade trees—just one plant among many in a biologically diverse forest. Deep inside an undisturbed part of the forest, wild coffee trees grow slowly, and produce only enough fruits to ensure the survival of the species. But over the centuries, arabica has been bred for yield, disease resistance and to grow in full sunlight. Breeding for flavour is a new concept.
How can the world increase the genetic diversity of coffee?
Cultivated arabica has an incredibly narrow genetic base.
In part that is from its history and how it spread, and in part, from its nature. Arabica is self-pollinating—its pollen can fertilise its own ovule—and pollinates itself about 95 per cent of the time, which keeps diversity from entering the species.
According to an expert, Ethiopia has 99.8 per cent of the world's genetic diversity of arabica. That diversity is greatest in the southwestern forests where it grows wild. Genetic variation is highest at its origin. The key is to tap into that diversity and bring out new breeds of coffee.
Do you think some varieties of coffee will become extinct due to the impacts of climate change?
More worrying than varieties disappearing is the fact that entire swaths of coffee-producing countries will lose their ability to grow arabica. A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a 2°C to 2.5°C increase in temperature would significantly trim the amount of suitable land for growing coffee across the world, perhaps halving it by 2050. In Brazil, where half of the world's arabica is grown, a rise of 3°C would cut areas under coffee production in the principal growing states of Minas Gerais and Sao Paulo by two thirds and extinguish it elsewhere.
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