Originally posted HERE.
Many coffee farmers across Central America will not turn a profit in
2013 and some will even go out of business due largely to the
near-epidemic levels of coffee rust disease occurring across the growing
“Poor harvests and low market prices this year will deal a lethal
blow to many marginal coffee farmers,” said Dr. Tim Schilling, Executive
Director of WCR, World Coffee Research, at the Borlaug Institute of
International Agriculture at Texas A&M University.
Total production of high-altitude, and thus high-quality, arabica
coffee from Central America will be reduced significantly. About 20% of
all Central American coffee production due to rust and other diseases
will be affected in this coffee cycle. The Guatemalan Coffee Board,
ANACAFE, estimates that production in Guatemala will be significantly
affected due to this year’s rust outbreak.
“Due to unusually high rainfalls at high altitude this year, the
coffee rust disease has wreaked havoc on arabica coffee yields all
across Central America,” Schilling said.
Meanwhile, Ric Rhinehart, Executive Director of SCAA, the Specialty
Coffee Association of America, says “This is especially worrisome for
the U.S. Specialty market that sources its beans from the small, high
altitude farms in Central America.”
Hemileia vastatrix, or coffee rust, causes some damage in any
year but can be devastating when conditions are especially favorable for
its rapid growth.
“This year turns out to be just that…the perfect storm for coffee
rust in Central America,” said Dr. Benoit Bertrand, coffee breeder from
CIRAD, the French development agency that works with tropical crops.
High rust spore populations were left on the ground from last year
and heavy rainfall allowed rust disease to multiply and rapidly attack
coffee plant leaves, reducing physiological activity and thus the
plant’s ability to produce.
“Those scenarios made this year’s rust attack particularly
devastating”, Bertrand said. “In some cases, coffee bushes have lost all
their leaves, branches have withered completely to the extent of
sometimes killing off the entire tree.”
Many stakeholders in the coffee sector have wondered whether the
severe outbreak of rust this year was due to a virulent ‘mutant’ race.
But work by CENICAFE scientists in Colombia proves that theory invalid.
“This year’s rust outbreak is not a new strain of the disease, but the same ‘RACE II’ of H. vastatrix
commonly associated with rust damage in coffee around the world,”
Bertrand said. “The outbreak can be credited to this year’s high
Schilling says it is likely that, “wild and extreme climate events
like this will continue and cause more problems as time goes on. We
simply must invest in research to provide solutions to farmers while
governments and the UN try to fix the global climate crisis.”
Most Central American coffee countries have already harvested this
year’s crop while others continue to harvest. As such, the damage is
done. Farmers, governments and development agencies now pose a question
as to how coffee rust disasters like that of Central America can be
avoided in the future. One of the surest short-term protection actions
involves the application of a systemic fungicide to the coffee plant
before the disease damages the plant. Dose, timing and frequency depend
on local conditions and recommendations. It is important to start the
application with the first rains.
“Although the application of fungicides can be effective in the short
term”, Bertrand says, “it is nevertheless expensive, laborious, and
The best way to protect against rust in the medium and longer terms
is through the use of a resistant variety of coffee. The good news is
that resistant varieties do exist and even some of the new F1 Hybrids
from different sources possess rust resistance combined with other
desirable agronomic traits.
The bad news Schilling says “is that the resistance to rust of nearly
all available varieties is specific for only RACE II of the disease and
that the resistant genes come from the robusta coffee species, a lesser
quality species than arabica. For the quality coffee market, this is
not the best of news.”
Not only are many of these varieties of inferior quality when
compared to their arabica parents but, as the resistances come from a
genetically very narrow source of robusta, when the disease produces a
mutation, the world’s coffee varieties will be susceptible and what
happened in 2012-2013 will be far worse with far greater world coffee
Fortunately, WCR, working together with PROMECAFE, CATIE, CIRAD and
national coffee research institutes like CENICAFE, EMBRAPA and others
are in the process of developing new pre-breeding populations that will
possess more than 10 times the level of genetic diversity used to
produce today’s coffee varieties. It is expected that the increased
diversity will result in new rust resistance genes with arabica
backgrounds and thus high quality.
“We’re confident that the work we’re doing together with the
excellent work of the national programs in Colombia, Brazil, Kenya and
PROMECAFE will alleviate the problem,” Schilling said. “WCR is working
together right now with these institutions and NGO’s like FTUSA and
other stakeholders to organize an emergency conference to figure out
what to do to control and prevent rust in the short, medium and long
terms in a coordinated and sustainable way.”
Blog Contributed by: Hannah Booth