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It is fashionable these days to blame any natural phenomena on global warming. With this in mind we ask a question. Is coffee leaf rust due to climate change? This is a pertinent question as Arabica coffee production has been devastated in several nations in the Western Hemisphere due to coffee leaf rust. There is a strong argument that temperatures are up and there certainly is a high incidence of leaf rust, la rolla in Spanish, devastating coffee crops. Over two thirds of coffee consumed worldwide is Arabica coffee. The other common variety, Robusta, is resistant to leaf rust but generally considered to be an inferior coffee. Let us take a look at the history of coffee leaf rust and efforts to control it such as with Colombian rust resistant coffee.
Coffee leaf rust is a fungal disease. It wiped out coffee plantations in Asia in the middle of the 19th century. The country of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was a coffee producer before the leaf rust drove planters to grow tea! The disease spread from the East Indies to South Asia and Africa and eventually arrived in the new world, almost a century later around 1970. Today coffee leaf rust threatens the livelihoods of coffee growers and workers throughout Central America. Due to foresight and hard work a country such as Colombia has produced a couple of leaf rust resistant strains over the last quarter of a century and greatly reduced the incidence of the plant disease in that country. Our original question was this: Is coffee leaf rust due to climate change? If that is the case you need to make the case for climate change in South Asia, the East Indies, and East Africa more than a century ago!
Dealing with Coffee Leaf Rust
Leaf rust kills organic coffee crops as well as regular coffee. The basic problem with coffee leaf rust is that when there is a big infestation the planter needs to remove all plants, treat the soil, and replant. This takes five years to produce a crop with new plants. In addition, if the planter simply chooses to use effective fungicides he loses his organic coffee certification for three years or more. The cost issues are such that leaf rust not only threatens coffee growers in general but also threatens to drive organic producers out of their niche. Is coffee leaf rust due to climate change? This is not an issue for the small grower. Finding rust resistant strains, treating outbreaks, and making a profit to support the family are the important issues.