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Growers are working to make our coffee habit more sustainable


This next story might be a bit tough to swallow for coffee lovers, of which there are many. By some estimates, we drink more than a billion cups every day around the world. But - and here's the tough part - right now, the way we're supporting that habit is not sustainable.

CHARLIE SHAW: It's important for people to understand the kind of devastation that can come from unrestrained pursuit.

MARTIN: That is Charlie Shaw, director of innovation at Atomo Coffee. He says if we keep producing coffee with our current methods...

SHAW: The estimates are something like two Costa Rica's worth of land that is currently wild forest would need to be cut down over the next 30 years.

MARTIN: One reason for that is that only two species of coffee, arabica and robusta, constitute 99% of our coffee consumption. This hurts biodiversity and leads to farming that damages the planet. And 60% of all coffee species, including arabica, are endangered. But here's the better news. Scientists are looking for alternatives.

AARON DAVIS: We need other coffee species, other coffee crops to come in and fill the gaps.

MARTIN: That's Aaron Davis. He has spent more than two decades researching coffee at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. He says one solution lies within the 128 species of wild coffee. One of those species is stenophylla. The plant was cultivated in Sierra Leone until the 1920s, when arabica and robusta were taking over the global market. So for decades, stenophylla virtually disappeared. But in 2018, Davis and his colleagues went to Sierra Leone in search of this elusive plant.

DAVIS: And what we actually did was to produce a wanted poster. You know, has anybody seen this plant?

MARTIN: Nobody had.

DAVIS: And at that point, we thought, that's it. It's extinct.

MARTIN: But they kept pressing, hiking deep into a forest in the east, and 6 miles later...

DAVIS: When we got to the right elevation, we found a really nice, healthy population.

MARTIN: They took samples. And now, stenophylla is making a comeback. He says local farmers have started replanting it, and other trial farms are expected to start growing it in the future.

DAVIS: You know, we can't afford to lose any more biodiversity.

MARTIN: But it isn't just preservation that's going to save this favorite drink. Scientists in Seattle have been brewing up being less coffee.

SHAW: People will say it's indistinguishable. It's just like coffee.

MARTIN: That's Charlie Shaw of Atomo Coffee again. Scientists at Atomo take ingredients that otherwise would be refused like date pits, chicory root, grape skin, and they extract elements from them in a lab.

SHAW: And just pull those parts together a little bit more elegantly than Frankenstein's monster.

MARTIN: It tastes just like cold brew, he says. But there's a crucial difference.

SHAW: What we're talking about here is cutting down no forest, planting no new trees, no extra processing, purely taking material that we already have.

MARTIN: Whether it's a new bean or a beanless Frankenstein brew, your morning cup of Joe might have to look a little different in the near future if you still want that morning kick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.