Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Smartse.
In the worst epidemic of coffee rust since 1976, many Central American countries are in crisis. Plant damage from this disease is a constant threat to the future of Coffea arabica and now seems to be getting more resistant. Coffee is such a large part of the economy in these nations that Guatemala declared a state of emergency earlier this year and is providing financial aid to affected farmers.
COFFEE DILEMMA IN CENTRAL AMERICA
Although rust is typically known as a reddish-brown flaky coating that forms on iron and other metals, coffee (or coffee leaves to be more accurate) can also “rust.” Coffee leaf rust is so called because it leaves yellow and reddish spots on the foliage that resemble rust. It is an obligate parasitic fungus known scientifically as Hemileia vastatrix. Hemileia vastatrix must take energy and nutrients from a live host (coffee) in order to survive and reproduce. The most susceptible variety to the fungus is Coffea arabica, from which all specialty coffee is produced.
The fungus, also called roya, has spread so widely that Guatemala declared a state of emergency earlier this year. Up to 40 percent of the Guatemalan crop may be lost this season, with Costa Rica losing between 30 to 40 percent. El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are also in crisis. There are areas where plants have lost so much foliage the farmers will have to remove the dying coffee trees and replant. This will affect production levels for years to come.
What is it like when roya attacks a coffee tree? When you have a healthy tree the plant will focus on the beans once they start developing. But when roya attacks the plant its attention turns to creating new leaves to replace those being destroyed. As a matter of survival photosynthesis takes priority over the beans and the nutrients they need to mature. Instead of ripe red coffee cherries, you see many green beans that never ripen or, even worse, dry branches and beans because of the anthracnose that accompanies roya.
Roya is not a new problem. It was first reported in Kenya in 1861. In the mid-to-late 19th century it destroyed more than 90 percent of the coffee crops in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). The resulting collapse of the coffee industry in the area caused farmers started looking for alternate crops such as tea. This is one of the reasons for the popularity of tea in England today. According to the ICO (International Coffee Organization), the current epidemic is the worst since 1976 when it first appeared in Central America.
The good news is the fungus has not mutated, meaning it is the same fungus that was controlled in the past and that leaves hope for the farmers. Local governments are providing assistance to affected farms with financial aid and fungicides. Among those who are contributing funds and services to the fight are: Fair Trade USA, Starbucks, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, and many others.
While the coffee leaf rust fungus is not the end of the ever loving coffee world, it is causing quite a bit of concern, and with good cause. Coffee exports are a significant portion of revenue for these nations. We need continued research into ways to combat leaf rust for it is the farmers who suffer the most. The top echelon coffees are going to be impacted by roya this year more than ever before. There will continue to be excellent high-quality beans to fill your cup, only fewer of them.
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