Posted in Kafevend Blog

Just as disease spreads through human and animal populations, so too can it attack the world of plants, infamous examples being the potato blight which caused the famines in Ireland and Scotland in the 1840s and Dutch Elm disease which wiped out most English Elms through the 1970s and '80s. While our landscape is now under threat from Ash Dieback, in Central America yet another fungal disease is having a profound effect on the livelihoods of those working in the coffee industry.

Leaf rust is a problem that has been plaguing coffee growers since the 19th century. Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, is famous as a tea growing nation today as a result of the economic disaster that leaf rust wrought back in 1869, destroying over 90% of its coffee crops. The transition to tea was a way to mitigate the hardship caused. Leaf rust, or Hemileia vastatrix, is a fungal disease, with severe outbreaks occurring from time to time. The resulting loss of leaves from the coffee trees leads to fewer beans available for harvest and those that remain are of an inferior quality.

The outbreak that currently affects Central America is potentially the most devastating for forty years. While disease resistant robusta coffee is impervious to leaf rust, Central America produces some of the finest arabica coffee, which is susceptible. Guatemala's president, Otto Perez Molina has declared a state of national emergency, with a majority of the nation's crop blighted by the fungus. The governments of Honduras and Costa Rica have responded similarly. With arabica coffee the main export for many Central American nations, the economic impact will be huge. Next year's harvests are likely to be even more badly affected and smallholder farmers in particular will face very straitened circumstances. The Guatemalan government is releasing $13.7m in emergency aid, which will go to help its small farmers fight the disease with pesticides, but with climate change presenting an increasing challenge ( the current outbreak is attributed by many to an average two-degree rise in temperature, higher rainfall and increasing humidity) a long term solution with research into disease prevention, new technologies and best practice is much needed to ensure the future of Arabica coffee in this region.

by Kafevend

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