Coffee Rust: the disease that’s currently affecting coffee plants in Central America

Wait a minute, you’re discussing coffee plant disease on a tea blog? Yes I am, but I promise I can tie this in to the world of tea!

Coffee rust is caused by a fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) that attacks the leaves of coffee plants, eventually killing the plant if left untreated. It is easily spread from plant to plant and can devastate a coffee plantation. This disease has been a problem for coffee growers in every region on the planet at one point or another. In 2008 Colombia’s coffee plants showed evidence of coffee rust and by 2011 plantations were suffering major losses. In fact, this year Colombian growers are expecting to finally have production levels back to where they were prior to the catastrophe.

Today, growers in Central America are battling the disease. The fallout from this disease will result in $500 million losses in production as well as the loss of 374,000 jobs across Central America.  Central America accounts for roughly 10% of the world’s supply.

The most concerning aspect of the disease today, as opposed to when it attacked Colombia, is that climate change is producing conditions that is enabling this disease to spread further than it has previously. Generally lower elevation plantations have been affected, but now it is affecting growers at higher elevations. The growers at these elevations, having not had to combat the disease previously, were unprepared and uneducated about how to mitigate the damage sooner. It is recommended that a grower either needs to cut the infected plant off at the stump and wait for it to re-grow (which could take at least 2 years) or remove the diseased plants entirely and replant, possibly with disease resistant plants. Either method requires time and capital to keep the operation running until the plants can produce again. For farmers who did not previously plant disease resistant plants, the question will also be whether or not to plant these resistant plants, since the beans will have vastly different tastes compared to the type of coffee beans they had been producing. This is especially devastating to the small coffee growers who pride themselves on unique taste profiles.

In April of this year an emergency summit was convened in Guatemala City to bring together knowledge, ideas and resources to prevent this catastrophe from affecting other areas and to help the plight of the current coffee farmers.

The concerned parties are charged with identifying how the disease is created and spread, how it can be treated, how to assist those currently affected, and how to prevent further outbreaks and losses. The challenges faced by the farmers is the loss of revenue for approximately 3 years, the time it will take for coffee plants to regenerate and produce fruit. In the meantime, farmers will need to purchase fungicides, new plants, and maintain the costs of the operation. Workers will lose their jobs and, as the fungus spreads, they will be unable to find work at neighboring plantations.

USAID is one of the agencies getting involved to help with the problem. Some people fear that the destruction of coffee farms will leave the workers jobless and with no choice for work except the illegal drug trade, so USAID has pledged monies to help current areas affected and to aid in the research to prevent future disasters.

And how does this really tie in to the world of tea? We are lucky today that global communication and resources result in a summit of concerned groups from every facet of coffee production to help combat the problems. In Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the early 1800’s, no such knowledge base or resources existed. Ceylon was a major producer of coffee to the European market from around 1830 until 1869. In 1869 coffee rust hit Ceylon growers and rapidly devastated production. Despite their valiant efforts to eradicate the disease, coffee soon ceased to be a viable crop in Ceylon. Growers turned to experimenting with other crops, such as cocoa, but they were not successful. When they began planting tea bushes, however, they started a new industry that is still thriving today. While tea existed in Ceylon prior to the coffee boom, large scale operations did not begin until 1867. Once coffee rust began destroying plants, the situation was optimal for the expansion of tea estates.  Today Sri Lanka is one of the largest tea producing countries in the world.

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”   – Pablo Picasso

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