COVID’s next casualty could be your cup of coffee

Beginning in the 2011-12 growing season, a powdery orange fungus known as coffee leaf rust spread like wildfire over Latin America and Central America, destroying harvests on 70% of farms and incurring $3.2 billion in losses. The pandemic was sparked in part by the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, which reduced coffee demand and pricing.

The COVID-19 epidemic has sent shockwaves through global markets more than a decade later, and a Purdue University scientist is warning that the coffee industry might be headed for another round of turmoil.

“In these coffee-producing countries, management boards would send agents out to farmers to ensure that they had the necessary equipment, fungicides, sprayers, and instructions on how to trim, fertilise, and sterilise their crops. Many of these boards were eliminated or defunded after 2008, and farmers lost access to up-to-date knowledge, equipment, and fungicides,” said Catherine Aime, a Purdue professor of mycology in the College of Agriculture. “Now we’re in a far worse situation. The COVID epidemic is depleting the limited resources available. Coffee harvests all over the world, particularly in the Americas, are at risk as a result.”

On Monday, Aime and colleagues from Rutgers University, the University of Arizona, the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Santa Clara University, the University of Exeter, and the CIRAD in France published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing their worries (June 28). They described the variables that contributed to the last large coffee leaf rust outbreak as well as the actions that might be taken to prevent future outbreaks.

Coffee consumption and prices fell as a result of the global crisis in 2008, resulting in decreased revenue for coffee producers. Farmers responded by decreasing fungal disease control, such as coffee rust, or abandoning farms entirely.

“Resource-constrained coffee growers who are subjected to these conditions frequently suffer a self-reinforcing feedback loop in which less plant care leads to lower revenues. This creates the circumstances for CLR to spread, resulting in more losses and worse profitability, according to the authors.

As a result, the rust, which causes tree defoliation and severe production reductions, has spread fast. In the fall of 2020, the disease made its first appearance in Hawaii, the fungus’s final unaffected location.

COVID has not only redirected resources away from coffee management, but it has also closed borders, restricting or prohibiting the movement of migrant labourers who are necessary for coffee harvesting throughout Latin America and Central America.

Profits decrease even lower when crops aren’t gathered, and the feedback loop becomes much more intense.

Coffee supplies might decline if attempts to remove coffee leaf rust are not made, making it more difficult for coffee drinkers to acquire their morning dose.

The researchers suggest a number of measures that could help with rust issues: sourcing coffee from more areas, including those not as severely impacted by the fungus; diversifying farms and livelihoods of coffee farmers; increasing prices paid to farmers and fostering more sustainable management practices; increasing coffee consumption and demand to raise prices paid to farmers; and developing cooperatives and partnerships to pool resources, knowledge and funding for coffee farmers.

The development of resistant cultivars is a major focus of current coffee leaf rot research. This method works best with robusta beans, which are regarded to be of lower quality than arabica. As the fungus develops, the resistant cultivars tend to lose their resistance.

Read more •


Suggested Reading