Trouble Is Brewing for the Coffee Industry

CC BY 2.0. Stirling Noyes

Leaf rust is devastating Central American farmers, affecting 50 percent of crops, and ruining millions of bags of coffee.

If you made yourself a nice cup of coffee this morning, you likely didn’t stop to wonder about how secure the coffee supply chain is. It’s easy to take coffee for granted, as it’s so readily available. The reality, however, is that the coffee industry in Central America is in turmoil. Coffee growers are experiencing the worst epidemic of coffee leaf rust, or ‘roya,’ that they’ve seen since this disease was first discovered in 1976.

Leaf rust is a fungal pathogen that infects coffee plants and causes them to shed their leaves. This inhibits photosynthesis and the plants die. It also prevents the current season’s berries from ripening and lowers carbohydrate accumulation in roots and shoots, which is where the next season’s berries are supposed to grow. Eventually, rust can kill the entire tree, setting a farmer back by 2 to 6 years, which is how long it takes for a replacement tree to grow harvestable fruit.

It’s hard to comprehend the extent of the damage. Central America supplies 12 percent of the world’s coffee, grown by 351,000 farmers, who support a total of 2 million people. Leaf rust has affected half of its coffee crops. According to Fair Trade Magazine, 2.7 million bags of coffee – worth US$500 million – were completely lost to rust in the 2012-13 growing season. That represents 17 percent of all of Latin America’s coffee production. Honduras has even declared a state of emergency.

Agricultural methods can have a lot to do with how susceptible coffee plants are to leaf rust, as the fungus doesn’t affect all plants in the same way. Fair Trade Magazine writes:

“You have fields with no rust right next to fields that are ravaged, because some trees are much more vulnerable. This vulnerability can come from the particular strain of coffee, but it can also increase due to factors such as depleted soils, soil acidity, and the health of the ecosystems. In addition, farmers can be affected by unseasonably high temperatures and humidity.”

Organic coffee farmers have seen a lower incidence of leaf rust. Oscar Omar is a farmer in Honduras whose trees were surrounded by infected crops, yet still managed to survive and produce 8,000 kilograms of coffee per hectare. His reasoning is that his trees are healthier and able to ward off infection.

Despite this, any industry and government relief proposals focus on intensive chemical solutions, which is why trees have weakened in the first place. The U.S. Agency for International Development has announced that it will put an additional $5 million into breeding new leaf-resistant strains of coffee trees. Coop Coffees reports that there has been “little real support” for small-scale, organic farmer groups.

Add to this the terrible drought that affected coffee crops this past year in Brazil, and the world’s supply will fall short by 11 million bags (60 kg/132 lbs) of coffee this year. Coffee prices, which have been falling steadily for the past two years, suddenly surged in January as traders realized the impending shortage.

Consumers can make a difference by supporting fair trade, organic coffee growers. This ensures that farmers receive a fair price for the coffee, regardless of the daily price per pound that’s set in NYC. Fair trade guarantees a minimum base price that allows for sustainable production, and if the market price goes higher, it must be matched. It also makes it easier for farmers to access the resources needed for dealing with leaf rust.