*Picture provided by Gabriela Cordon
The fungal infection Roya del cafeto (Spanish for coffee plant rust) is currently making waves in Central America. Despite receiving scant international recognition, the recent rapid dissemination of the disease has had a huge impact on coffee producers and local communities in Central America. It has even led the Guatemalan Coffee Association to declare a state of emergency, citing an expected 15% loss to the 2012-13 harvests. Predictions paint an even gloomier picture for the future and experts estimate that the rapid spread among coffee fincas (estates) will lead to the destruction of 40% of produce over 2013 -14.
HOW DOES COFFEE RUST OCCUR?
Coffee plant rust is caused by a fungus called Hemileia Vastatrix, which attacks by entering through the stoma on the lower face of the leaf. The first sign of infection is the appearance of yellow spots, later seen as orange spores (uredospore) on the leaves. The fungus causes the leaves to decay and to fall off the coffee plant.
As more infected leaves fall off the tree, the plant’s ability to photosynthesise is impaired, leading to the production of fewer coffee berries. As the amount of berries decreases, farmers receive less coffee beans. The uredospore travel through insects or rain to other plants in the close vicinity, causing wide spreading of the disease.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The first known recording of coffee rust was in Sri Lanka in the mid to late 19th century. Since its first recording, it has spread all over the globe, first to Africa and Asia, and more recently to the Americas in the 1970s. Coffee rust is not a recent arrival onto the coffee scene and people have been aware about its dangers for quite some time now. So how come it has only recently brought about such a devastating effect?
Experts point to adverse and volatile weather conditions. An unfortunate mix of a very rainy season coupled with intermittent warm and humid sunny days has enabled the rust to propagate aggressively through the Central American coffee fincas. Conversely, some point to the use of modern farming techniques and pesticides which have killed off some of the natural ecosystem in coffee trees (such as white halo fungus that protect against coffee rust).
Whatever the reason, to get to the root of the crisis (excuse the pun), there needs to be a better understanding of coffee rust and farmers need to be better prepared to tackle the current problem and to come up with a prevention strategy.
Many experts in the industry advocate chemical control. The effectiveness of this measure will depend on both the quality of the chemicals and their price. Often cheaper, less effective chemicals that have adverse effects are purchased simply because those at the top end are unaffordable (this situation is exacerbated with the smaller micro plots who are on a tighter budget).
Buying these chemicals via co-operatives would be an easy way to circumvent this problem. There is still a huge amount of uncertainty surrounding the efficacity of chemicals and other strategies on the market to tackle coffee rust and many have spoken of the need for a common standard which people can trust.
Cooperation and unity are essential to ensure the long term profitability of the fincas that are affected by the disease. Some producers have experimented using different plant varietals that are more resistant to the leaf rust, but in some cases this has resulted in a drop in quality. There is an urgent need for the Central American coffee community to tackle this problem. Coffee is a key component of many Central American economies, and this should give adequate impetus to fast and effective action.