Coffee Rust Never Sleeps

It is not that we avoid this topic. Over the years we have posted plenty of times on it. It is complex, with no clear solution in view so we have avoided the most depressing stories on the topic, of which there are plenty. The topic matters very much to our current livelihood, so we are constantly on the lookout for stories that illuminate with science, touch with humanity, and/or frighten with clarity. We share one today that does all three. We have featured the work of Maryn McKenna just once before, and now is as good a time as any to do so again. Guatemala is in our neighborhood and the story she tells could have as easily been here in Costa Rica. We thank the Atlantic for publishing it:

Coffee Rust Is Going to Ruin Your Morning

Coffee plants were supposed to be safe on this side of the Atlantic. But the fungus found them.

In the southern corner of Guatemala, outside the tiny mountain town of San Pedro Yepocapa, Elmer Gabriel’s coffee plants ought to be leafed-out and gleaming. It is a week before Christmas, the heart of the coffee-harvesting season, and if his bushes were healthy, they would look like holiday trees hung with ornaments, studded with bright-red coffee cherries. But in a long row that stretches down the side of his steeply sloped field, the plants are twiggy and withered. Most of their leaves are gone, and the ones that remain are drab olive and curling at the edges. There are yellow spots, brown in the center, on the leaves’ upper surfaces. On the underside they are pebbly, and coated with a fine orange dust.

The dust looks like rust on a piece of steel, and that is how it got its name: The plants are infected with coffee-leaf rust, a devastating fungus. Gabriel recognized the problem as soon as he saw it. The rust, la roya in Spanish, arrived almost a decade ago, at about the time he bought the hilltop parcel he calls Finca La Felicidad, the “farm of happiness.” He knew about it from his childhood: His father had been a coffee farmer too, and in the 1970s the rust had come and parched their plants. His father sprayed the plants with fungicides, and the disease retreated. Gabriel did the same when the rust returned and flecked the bushes of La Felicidad a decade ago, and the disease retreated again.

But now the fungicides were no longer working as they had. “La roya does not respect them,” Gabriel told me through a translator. One day, with no warning, the golden dots bloomed on a few leaves on a single plant. Gabriel sprayed them, and sprayed again, but the spots widened, then turned dark and dry and cracked through the middle. The leaves crisped, curling at the edges, and fell from the plant when breezes jostled them. The dust, the fungal spores, drifted across the field and infected another bush, or fell to the ground and splashed onto the next plant when rain fell. The cycle of slow plant death began again.

Gabriel shrugged in discomfort, and the polo shirt he wore bunched under his ears. “I thought it would go away after a year or two, the way it had before,” he said. “But it’s totally infested … And in spite of using fungicides, it seems like it’s not enough.”…

Read the whole story here.

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