What’s Killing the World’s Coffee Plants?
Modern growing practices, including the use of pesticides, could be killing off coffee by spreading “coffee rust,” a fungus that has swept through plantations in Central America and Mexico. Coffee rust attacks plants’ leaves, making lesions on their undersides and interfering with their ability to photosynthesize; it also infects the fruit and buds of young plants. The fungus spores are spread by wind and rain.
Coffee rust was first found in 1861, near Lake Victoria in East Africa in 1861 and then in Sri Lanka in 1867. It migrated to southeast Asia and then through coffee-growing regions in southern, central and western Africa. The disease only reached the Western Hemisphere in 1970, appearing first in Brazil. Now, coffee rust has affected, or rather infested, every coffee-growing country in the world.
The current coffee rust outbreak is the worst ever seen in Central America and Mexico in the past 40 years, when the fungal disease arrived in the region. In fact, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica have all declared national emergencies due to the fungus, with the Guatemalan president saying coffee production could fall by 40 percent in his country for the 2013-2014 growing season.
Since 14 percent of the world’s coffee comes from Central America, prices for a cup are almost guaranteed to rise.
Is the Coffee Rust Epidemic the “New Normal”?
University of Michigan ecologist John Vandermeer has studied coffee growing at an organic coffee plantation in southern Chiapas, Mexico, for about 15 years. The coffee rust has spread to the trees he has been studying: more than 60 percent of the trees have at least 80 percent defoliation. Just under a third have no leaves at all and ten percent have died.
As Vandermeer explains, the coffee rust outbreak has occurred at a time when Latin American coffee farmers, seeking to meet the demands of a global market, have converted most of their acreage to “sun coffee.” This involves thinning out or even removing the highly varied canopy of trees used in traditional shade-growing techniques and relying more on pesticides and fungicides.
Vandermeer thinks that the drastic change to sun coffee could be behind the latest, far more severe coffee rust outbreak because
the move to sun coffee results in a gradual breakdown of the complex ecological web found on shade plantations. One element of that web is the white halo fungus, which attacks insects and also helps keep coffee rust fungus in check.
Both the widespread use of pesticides and fungicides and the low level of biodiversity found at sun-coffee plantations have likely contributed to the decline of white halo fungus in recent years, Vandermeer said. Without white halo fungus to restrain it, coffee rust, also known as roya, has been able to ravage coffee plantations from Colombia to Mexico, he said.
As Vandermeer explains, a “once-complicated ecosystem has been slowly breaking down, which is what happens when you try to grow coffee like corn.”
What is yet unknown, and why the fate of the region’s coffee growers hangs in the balance, is whether this massive coffee rust outbreak is a one-time event or the start of a “new normal.” Based on Vandemeer’s assessments, the latter seems too likely to be the case. Coffee producers in Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Mexico have all told Vandermeer they are seeing the “worst explosion of this disease” ever.
The rise of non-traditional growing methods has occurred to increase yield as demand for worldwide coffee has grown. That is, to some extent, our desire for coffee could be causing a steep decline in the world coffee supply. That may sound alarming and it is. It’s also a sure reason for supporting sustainable farming practices that could mean paying more (a lot more, if Vandemeer’s assessment is correct) for a pound of beans — but that’s better than there no longer being any more coffee to purchase.
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