La Roya – to an untrained ear those words almost sound like a new blend of premium coffee. Far from it.
“The rust” is shorthand for coffee leaf rust or Hemileia vastatrix, a devastating fungus that attacks coffee plants and often threatens the plants’ survival.
Fungal spores first show on an infected plant as yellowish-brown spots on the underside of coffee leaves, eventually turning rust-colored red. As the disease progresses, infected leaves fall off the plant. If left untreated, the fungus chokes off the plant by leaving it unable to photosynthesize.
First discovered in East Africa in 1861, coffee leaf rust destroyed the crop on the island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and is credited as one of the reasons the British drink tea. The disease soon spread to Southeast Asia and coffee-growing regions in south, central and western Africa. La Roya finally reached the western hemisphere in 1970, when an outbreak was discovered in Bahia, Brazil. Coffee leaf rust is now found in every coffee-growing region in the world.
Despite its global spread, coffee rust has typically been manageable and controllable, if still a serious nuisance. When treated quickly, otherwise healthy plants in good soil can survive the disease. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of State considers the current outbreak of La Roya as the worst ever seen in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Losses have topped $1 billion, costing hundreds of thousands of jobs and forcing many to abandon the coffee-farming life altogether in search of a better life elsewhere.
“In some years it’s worse than others and in some geographies it’s worse than others,” says Lindsey Bolger, VP of coffee sourcing and excellence for Keurig Green Mountain. “We have seen an entire population of coffee obliterated, truly destroyed and wiped out by this particular disease.” Never has the disease been “quite as impactful in terms of coffee production and coffee farmer livelihood.”
Over the last couple of years, coffee rust has threatened the livelihoods of up to 14 million people. What is different this time? Why has leaf rust taken such a toll on an entire coffee growing region? Click to continue reading »
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