Outbreak Of Fungus Threatens To Spark "Coffee Crisis" And We Don’t Know How To Stop It

 NOT THE COFFEE! loca4motion/Shutterstock.com

Rosie McCall 17 Oct 2018, 17:35

Espresso purists, flat white aficionados, and triple mocha Frappuccino fanboys, we have a problem. The world's coffee stocks are set to plummet. 

The current coffee crisis is being caused by an outbreak of coffee leaf rust, itself caused by a fungus called Hemileia vastatrix. There is no way to completely eradicate the fungi but it is possible to manage its spread – only it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so.

"We are in the middle of the biggest coffee crisis of our time," Josué Morales, a Guatemalan producer and exporter, told NPR

Over the past 10 years, Latin American coffee growers have had to endure several leaf rust outbreaks and it's taking its toll. Seven-eighths of the global supply of Arabica coffee beans comes from countries in South and Central America, and many farms here have seen annual production numbers fall 50 to 80 percent since 2012. Some growers have managed to weather this crisis by using resistant coffee beans but this may not be a viable option for very much longer. 

As explained in Roast Magazine, there are two categories of coffee plant – at least when it comes to their resistance to leaf rust. One, resistant and two, susceptible. However, things might not be quite as black and white as those two categories suggest.

Last year, it was discovered the assumed-to-be-resistant lempira variety of Arabica bean had lost its resistance to leaf rust. And it gets worse. Last month, Christophe Montagnon, the scientific director of World Coffee Research, told attendees at a conference in Portland that it is only a matter of time before the most other resistance varieties succumb to the disease as well, perhaps in as little as five to 10 years. 

"Rust resistance coming from different sources of introgression – the transferring of genes from one species to another after hybridization and backcrossing – is being broken step by step," Montagnon said in a statement, though World Coffee Research offers guidelines (including focusing on plant health and prioritizing research) to help protect the plant's future. 

This is not the first time an outbreak of rust leaf has caused such a crisis. As NPR reports, in the mid-19th century, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was one of the world's most important growers, producers, and exporters of coffee – until it was hit by a rust leaf outbreak. Twenty years after the fungus first appeared and 90 percent of land devoted to coffee had been abandoned. 

Ceylon came up with a solution to the crisis but it's not one coffee addicts are going to like. Farmers ditched coffee beans for tea leaves. 

Global demand for the bean is expected to double by 2050 so fingers crossed a solution is found for this problem. Otherwise, we might have to swap arabica coffee for it's bitter and rougher brother, robusta. 

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