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Fair Trade USA Sponsored Series

The Future of Fair Trade

FairTrade USA Ramps Up Fight Against Coffee Rust in Central America

Words by Leon Kaye

This is part of a series on "The Future of Fair Trade," written in collaboration with Fair Trade USA. A 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.

Coffee rust, or roya, is poised to devastate coffee farms throughout Central America. Caused by the fungus Hemieia Vastatrix, the rust infects leaves on coffee plants and quickly inhibits their ability to produce the coffee berries that end up in our favorite arabica or robusta coffees.

Now an outbreak in Central America threatens the livelihood of small-scale farmers who have long struggled to make a living selling the world’s most popular beverage. The blight, if left unchecked, could decrease coffee production 30 to 50 percent in the next two years. Last month, Guatemala, where as much as 40 percent of next season’s harvest could be lost, declared a state of emergency. Coffee farms in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are also under threat.

To that end, Fair Trade USA has launched the new Rust Response Fund, to which they plan to contribute a minimum of $50,000. The NGO is asking consumers and stakeholders within the coffee industry to educate themselves about coffee rust and to support coffee farmers and co-ops in the fight to prevent this disease from spreading throughout the region.

The first reports of coffee rust date back to the 1860s in Kenya. A devastating blight throughout southern India and Sri Lanka during the mid-nineteenth century forced producers to shift to tea production. As a result, many coffee drinkers in the United Kingdom switched from coffee to tea--and hence caused a change in British culture. A similar catastrophe is possible now in a region where farmers just now are starting to find financial security due to the global coffee boom and growing consumer interest in organic and fair trade coffees.

Unfortunately, the response of Central American governments is to call for large scale spraying, which would not only harm workers but also consumers. During my interview yesterday with Ben Corey-Moran, Director of Coffee Supply at Fair Trade USA, he described how the intensive spraying of individual coffee plants is not only expensive, but offers no guarantee that it can prevent the spread of coffee rust to other plants and then farms across the region. “What’s effective instead,” said Corey-Moran, “is to focus on prevention with a focus on plant health, soil nutrition and shade canopies.” Spraying is not a one-sized-fits-all solution, he explained during our telephone conversation--every coffee growing region will require a different set of strategies based on local climate and soil conditions.

To that end, the Rust Response Fund would fund grants geared to agronomists and farmers so they can start projects such as plant rehabilitation, updated farmer training, soil management, new organic farming applications and the hiring of coffee rust experts and consultants.

Diminished supplies of arabica coffee will have a negative impact on the world’s largest coffee companies, but the business community has shown little concern. The coffee industry is about to suffer the largest coffee shortage since 2009-2010--and the small scale co-ops and farms that provide the bulk of fair trade-certified coffee will suffer the most. According to Ben-Corey, any perceived lack of urgency is because this year’s current coffee harvest has already been picked. Plus, rust has always been a threat in coffee growing regions. The outlook for the next several years, however, is grim.

The co-ops who have partnered with Fair Trade USA are in the best position to assist the most vulnerable growers. Relationships these co-ops have developed with farmers means they can offer coffee growers the most rational and best technical resources at the fairest price.

For more information about Rust Response, check out Fair Trade USA's Rust Response Fund, any donations to the fund will assist Fair Trade USA's partners in their efforts to prevent Coffee Rust.

[Image credit: Fair Trade USA]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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