We’ve all been hearing lately about this gruesome leaf rust that’s killing coffee plants in droves throughout Central America and Mexico. The rust is attacking the leaves, causing lesions, and interfering with the plant’s ability to photosynthesize. It can also attack young plants’ fruit buds. The spores of the fungus are then transported to other plants by rain and wind.
The first sighting of coffee rust was in 1861 near Lake Victoria in Africa, then again in 1867 in Sri Lanka. It migrated from there to southeast Asia and then made its way through other coffee growing regions in southern, central, and western Africa. The disease didn’t appear in the Western hemisphere until 1970, when it first showed up in Brazil. Since then, it has become a worldwide problem.
Many are wondering if the rust epidemic, especially now that it’s rearing its head in Central America and Mexico, is the new norm. Ecologist, John Vandermeer, who has studied coffee growing at an organic plantation in Chiapas, Mexico for 15 years, explains that the coffee rust outbreak has come at a time when many farmers in Latin America have converted to non-shade grown coffee in order to keep up with world-wide market demands. This also includes relying more on pesticides and fungicides. He thinks that this most recent outbreak is only the beginning, stating “once-complicated ecosystem has been slowly breaking down, which is what happens when you try to grow coffee like corn.”
The reason sun coffee, pesticides, and fungicides are the root of this problem is due to the following, according to Vandermeer:
- sun coffee results in a gradual breakdown of the complex ecological web that can be found on shade grown plantations. Part of that web element is the white halo fungus that attacks insects and kills coffee rust.
- Using pesticides and fungicides more often result in a lower level biodiversity, which also decline in the white halo fungus.
It’s no known whether the most recent spread is a one-time thing, or if it is just the beginning of a so called ‘new normal. Unfortunately, in accordance with Vandermeer, this probably isn’t the last we’ll see of the outbreaks. And confirming this is reports from Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico, all claiming this is the worst epidemic they have ever seen.
The world’s stronger desire for coffee as of late is contributing to a higher demand from the coffee plantations in Latin America, however this will eventually lead to a steep decline in the world’s coffee supply. This means that we need to support more ‘sustainable’ farming practices, however this will lead to a higher price on coffee. But, it’s a better alternative to no coffee at all, right?