La Roya, also known as Coffee Rust fungus has moved from a minor irritation in Latin America into a plague of massive proportions. Why now? And, why at all? Without going all pseudo scientific, it would seem that the looming threat of climate change has finally shown itself and, as predicted, coffee agriculture is the canary in the coalmine.
This is one of my pet phrases and it seems that a surprising number of folks have no idea what it means so, never letting a chance to be pedantic pass me by without a fight, I will explain it.
In England, before modern sensing equipment, coalminers used to take canaries in small cages down into the pits. Canaries are much more sensitive to dangerous gases such as methane, a common byproduct of coal. If the canary drops dead it is time to leave the mine, fast.
Coffee, particularly Arabica coffee, is very sensitive to changes in its environment and growing conditions. When the tropical climatic conditions started to change five or so years ago, the temperature started to go up and the usually predictable rain cycles began to be erratic. Coffee started to show the harmful effects.
In the thoughts of a few of us doom and gloom predictors, the question was not whether the resulting loss of yields would happen, but rather how it would first manifest itself. My money was on wide spread Borer Beetle infestation (and in some respects that was correct); but what seems to be killing the canary is Coffee Rust.
Coffee Rust seems so fragile and simple but in the real world, it is the single most deadly catastrophe Mother Nature can throw at coffee. It is a fungus, the least sophisticated of the higher orders of plants, but with a fierce will to survive expelling billions of spores into the wind and quickly spreading across a large area of coffee trees.
It has always been manageable, since the conditions to support Coffee Rust only occurred in small microclimate pockets. However last year conditions across the Andean and Central American coffee regions all hit that temperature and rain sweet spot that La Roya loves so much.
The reason that Coffee Rust is such a fearful problem is that once it hits a plant, it spreads rapidly unto the leaves blocking the plants ability to carry out photosynthesis. The leaves wither and drop prematurely, carrying the fungus to the leaf clutter below the tree. As new leaves form to replace the loss, the coffee rust reasserts itself upon the next rainy season. Unlike other pests and diseases that can hit coffee, the damage is not limited or selective. It does not just wreck a few cherries, or shrivel a branch or two. Coffee Rust is homicidal and if left unchecked, depletes and may eventually kill the host tree. Use of expensive and potentially toxic fungicides as well as quarantine and preemptive plant removal seem to be the prime defense against Coffee Rust. Eradication however seems to not be possible. And there is the problem! By even the most conservative estimates, this current weather pattern is going to remain for at least the next year, which means that the potential exists for a continuing destruction of coffee plants. This potentially means total destruction, not a temporary inconvenience.
Why does this mean destruction? It is the “human factor.” It does not matter if the current weather patterns last for five years or five thousand years – let the scientists and politicians argue that out. From a practical aspect, once a farmer’s trees drop below a consistent minimum yield to support the family, the farm will cease to exist.
We face the prospect of hillsides covered with the skeletal remains of coffee trees for as far as the eye can see. Sound apocalyptic, not really. Remember the American Elm, the Chestnut, and soon the Lodge Pole Pine forests of the Rocky Mountains? All were too specialized and fell victim to changing conditions.
Within three years, farmers may be pulling out their coffee trees and replacing them with a new, more viable, agricultural, pastoral, or real estate development enterprises.
It is sad that there is very little we can do. All the fuel-efficient cars and recycling programs in the world – even if there was the political will to change today – cannot change this situation quickly enough.
So are we simply done? Well probably not. There will still be coffee, albeit very expensive coffee and ultimately new varietals are coming on-line that are resistant to this plague. According to Peter Baker of CABI, the renowned scientific research institute in London, “Resistant varietals are already available. But many farmers haven’t planted them because specialty roasters say the cup quality is inferior. But some of them, like Castillo in Colombia for example, seem to have a pretty good cup profile.” Hopefully researchers will be proactive enough to also anticipate the next plague coming down the pipeline – one can hope.
One thing is certain however. The world of coffee in Mexico, Central, and South America will look very different than it does now. The Great American drought that created the dust bowl in the 1930’s ended forever the “40 acre and a mule” farm family in the USA and ushered in the era of corporate farming. Corporate farming is able to be more resilient to lose caused by weather or pests because the farms are so much more vast. A hailstorm can destroy 100 acres of wheat and barely effect the total farm yields on today’s agro-business farms
I predict that the same will happen in coffee. The smallholder farm will give way to the large corporate estate as big international money interests purchase and consolidate the ravaged lands once held by small families. Only big money will have the financial oomph to invest what it will take to re-establish coffee production in Latin America to the scale that it has been.
Is this a terrible thing? I do not know – maybe, maybe not. It may be an inevitable and natural progression that is only precipitated by La Roya. I hope though that I am wrong.
Kerri & Miles