Crisis Looms for Senior Citizens as 'Coffee Rust'
Wipes Out Production of Their Favorite Drink
A survey of seniors years ago found most prefer
coffee to sex, but this devotion to caffeine may get challenged by an
expected jump in price due to wide-spread fungus attack blamed on
Feb. 12, 2013 - Senior citizens may show little
concern when the price of gasoline goes through the roof, but there is a
price jump on the way that will make their gray hair, if available,
stand on end. There is a raging outbreak of “coffee rust,” a fungus,
that is sweeping through plantations in Central America and Mexico and
severely limiting production, which pushes prices higher.
A shift away from traditional coffee-growing
techniques may be increasing the severity of the fungus outbreak,
according to a University of Michigan ecologist, John Vandermeer who
studies the disease.
Guatemala recently joined Honduras and Costa Rica
in declaring national emergencies due to the disease. The current spread
of coffee rust, according to Vandermeer is the worst seen in Central
America and Mexico since the fungal disease arrived in the region more
than 40 years ago.
Good news may warrant changes to current heart failure prevention guidelines of American Heart Association that say coffee drinking
may be risky for heart patients; bit of bad news - excess coffee bad! -
June 27, 2012
The Guatemalan president said the outbreak could
cut coffee production by 40 percent in his country for the 2013-2014
growing season. Because Central America supplies 14 percent of the
world's coffee, the outbreak could drive up the price of a cup of
Vandermeer has operated research plots at an
organic coffee plantation in southern Chiapas, Mexico, for about 15
years. Vandermeer and colleague Ivette Perfecto of the U-M School of
Natural Resources and Environment study the complex web of interactions
between resident organisms there, including various insects, fungi,
birds and bats.
Vandermeer said more than 60 percent of the trees
on his study plots now have at least 80 percent defoliation due to
coffee rust, which attacks leaves and interferes with their ability to
photosynthesize. Thirty percent of the trees have no leaves at all, and
nearly 10 percent have died.
"I have personal reports from friends who work in
coffee in Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and
Mexico. They all say that it's the worst explosion of this disease
they've ever seen," said Vandermeer, a professor in the Department of
Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and at SNRE.
“One of the most feared pathogens to coffee growers
is Hemileia vastatrix, or the coffee rust fungus,” writes Shawn
CoffeeResearch.org. “In the years since, H. vastatrix has appeared
in every coffee producing region except Hawaii. This fungus is largely
responsible for the modernization of coffee plantations in South
Over the last 20 to 25 years, many Latin American
coffee farmers have abandoned traditional shade-growing techniques, in
which the plants are grown beneath a diverse canopy of trees. In an
effort to increase production, much of the acreage has been converted to
"sun coffee," which involves thinning or removing the canopy and a
greater reliance on pesticides and fungicides to keep pests in check.
Vandermeer suspects that the shift to sun coffee
may be contributing to the severity of the latest coffee rust outbreak.
The move to sun coffee results in a gradual breakdown of the complex
ecological web found on shade plantations. One element of that web is
the white halo fungus, which attacks insects and also helps keep coffee
rust fungus in check.
Both the widespread use of pesticides and
fungicides and the low level of biodiversity found at sun-coffee
plantations have likely contributed to the decline of white halo fungus
in recent years, Vandermeer said. Without white halo fungus to restrain
it, coffee rust, also known as roya, has been able to ravage coffee
plantations from Colombia to Mexico, he said.
"What we feel has been happening is that gradually
the integrity of this once-complicated ecosystem has been slowly
breaking down, which is what happens when you try to grow coffee like
corn," Vandermeer said.
"And this year it seems to have hit a tipping
point, where the various things that are antagonistic to the roya in a
complex ecosystem have declined to the point where the disease can
escape from them and go crazy."
The big unanswered question is whether the current
outbreak is a freak one-time event or the first look at a new normal for
"It could be that this disease is just going to run
itself out this year and will then return to previous levels," he said.
"Or it could be that it now becomes a relatively permanent fixture in
the region. The path this disease takes will have huge implications for
the region's coffee producers."
Coffee rust is the most important disease of coffee
worldwide. It was first discovered in the vicinity of Lake Victoria in
East Africa in 1861 and was later identified and studied in Sri Lanka in
1867, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The disease soon
spread to much of Southeast Asia and eventually throughout the southern,
central and western coffee-growing regions of Africa.
Coffee rust was not known in the Western Hemisphere
until 1970, when it was found in Bahia, Brazil. Since 1970, the disease
has spread to every coffee-growing country in the world, according to
the Coffee Research Institute.
The rust mainly infects coffee leaves, but also
young fruit and buds. Coffee rust spores are spread by the wind and the
rain from lesions on the underside of leaves.