Organic Coffee Farmers in Central America May Not Survive

Coffee Fields

Coffee Fields

Organic coffee farms in Central America have typically been located at high altitudes where there has been less worry about fungal   disease. However, in recent years, fungal outbreaks have increasingly-occurred at these higher elevations and organic growers may not survive the huge yield losses due to their non-use of fungicides.

“Finca Santa Isabel, often held up as a shining example of success with organic agriculture in coffee, may not make it. The culprit? A fungus known as roya that often goes unnoticed until bright-orange pustules start appearing on the underside of leaves. This parasite interrupts the tree’s ability to nourish itself by redirecting nutrients to those colorful lesions. Eventually, the infected leaves shrivel up and fall off.

The Keller family owns Finca Santa Isabel, located in Santa Rosa, about an hour south-east of Guatemala City. It became the second estate to be Rainforest Alliance-certified in 1997, and the Kellers were named Sustainable Standard-Setter by the nonprofit in 2003. In a 2009 profile, the family was lauded for its successes with sustainable practices: caring for the land, being a profitable business, and having enough left over to help build needed infrastructure for their community. They grow Arabica at an elevation of 3,500 to 4,500 feet above sea level in a zone most growers thought roya could not thrive.

But the rusk outbreak is happening almost everywhere. By most accounts, large and low-lying estates accustomed to spraying to protect their trees will survive. …Growers in areas prone to the rust use fungicide prophylactically twice a year. Spraying, which typically occurs in July and September in Central America, is timed to happen just before and just after periods of heavier precipitation.

Farmers caught unprepared, like Keller, have to decide whether and how to fight this blight.

The fungus is causing huge shortfalls in coffee cherries at higher elevations and in shaded areas of Central America, in places where growers used to feel relatively immune. Keller was one of them and he relayed a stunning loss: “Last year, we had about a 70% drop in production and so did many other farms that work conventionally around us. The main reason is that nobody thought that it was going to be so bad.”

Guatemalan workers on coastal farms in lower altitudes that face the Pacific sprayed ahead of time. Farmers in these regions have also planted rust-resistant varieties as part of recovering from earlier outbreaks. Those growing coffee in hillier areas at higher altitudes did not. Nor do they use fungicides routinely.

“…The pathogen itself could be adapting to temperature variation or it could be a combination of the weather events with growers not using fungicides making disease more severe.”

Authors: J. Neill
Affiliation: STiR
Title: Central American Coffee Rust Crisis: No Easy Answers.
Source: STiR Tea and Coffee Industry International. Available at:

Emergency Fungicide Sprays to Protect Coffee Trees in Costa Rica

Rust Infection

Rust Infection

Coffee is the only known host of the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, which causes coffee rust also known as “roya”. The disease damages coffee leaves by causing the premature drop of infected leaves, which can lower yields by 50%.Coffee rust has become a greater problem for coffee growers because of climate change. Higher temperatures and increased rainfall favors rapid development of the disease.

“Costa Rica on Tuesday declared an emergency to tackle the spread of a coffee fungus that has already devastated Central American producers and looks set to destroy about 12 percent of Costa Rica’s planted coffee in the upcoming 2013/14 harvest.

A two-year emergency bill, signed jointly by Costa Rica’s Vice President Luis Liberman and the national coffee institute ICAFE, provisions about $4 million to pay for fungicides to tackle the roya, or leaf rust, outbreak.

Roya kills coffee leaves by sapping them of nutrients and lowering bean yields. The current roya pandemic has already affected other countries in Central America and Mexico, home to more than a fifth of the world’s Arabica coffee production.”

Author: Cota, I.
Affiliation: Reporter, Reuters.
Title: Costa Rica declares national emergency to tackle coffee fungus.
Source: Reuters. January 22, 2013.

The Story of Coffee Rust: Why the British Drink Tea

In England in the early and mid-1800s, the most popular drink was coffee from plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). When the coffee rust fungus destroyed Ceylon’s coffee trees in 1875, the plantations began growing tea.

“When the coffee rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, reached Ceylon in 1875, nearly 400,000 acres of the island were covered with coffee trees. No effective chemical fungicide was available to protect the foliage, so the fungus was able to colonize the leaves until nearly all the trees had been defoliated. … In 1870, Ceylon exported 100 million pounds of coffee. By 1889, production was down to 5 million pounds. In less than 20 years, many coffee plantations had been destroyed, and production had essentially ceased.”

“As the coffee trees were dying, however, the plantation owners noticed that the thousand or so acres of tea bushes were still healthy. …the owners replaced most of the dead coffee trees with tea bushes. By 1875, more than 1 billion tea seedlings had been planted on 300,000 acres—an amazing increase from the acreage planted only a few years earlier. … Luckily, no fungus invaded the tea crop immediately, and newly discovered fungicides were soon available to protect tea from its fungal pathogens.”

Authors: G.L. Shumann and C.J. D’Arcy
Publication: Hungry Planet: Stories of Plant Diseases. 2012. APS Press.

Fungicides Save Brazil’s Coffee Crop

Coffee leaf rust is considered one of the most catastrophic plant diseases of all time. In the 1860s, coffee rust was largely responsible for destroying the coffee plantations of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which had been the greatest coffee-producing country in the world. As coffee rust spread through Asia and Africa, coffee production increased significantly in Latin America where coffee rust was not present. However, coffee rust was detected in Brazil in 1970 and has since spread throughout Latin America, making fungicide use essential.

“In susceptible cultivars, chemical control has been the only option for decreasing the incidence of CLR on plants, and for reducing the harmful effects on the disease. The coffee growing regions in Brazil as well as almost all other coffee-producing regions worldwide are comprised of susceptible Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora cultivars (the latter is the second most widely cultivated coffee species). Preventive control of CLR in the main Brazilian coffee-producing regions consists from four to six applications of protective copper-based fungicides and two to three foliar applications of systemic fungicides.”

Authors: A. Fernando de Souza, L. Zambolim, V. Cintra de Jesus Jr., P.R. Cecon.
Affiliation: Federal University of Vicosa, Minas Gerais State, Brazil
Title: Chemical approaches to manage coffee leaf rust in drip irrigated trees
Publication: Australasian Plant Pathology. 2011. 40:293-300.