Climate Change Causing Coffee to Rust Away

by Kristi Walker, Plant Health Management major

Coffee is a way of life in much of Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the world. Farmers grow and harvest the berries, the berries are de-pulped, and then dried to be exported, or roasted in country. In the past few years there has been an increase in the occurrence of rust (Hemileia vastatrix) outbreaks in the coffee plantations, threatening families and the economy of the country.

Rust in coffee is a fungus that grows on the leaves and spreads to the berries. It begins by turning the leaves orange in spots, progressing to dead tissue and holes in the leaves. The fungus then transitions and turns the bright red berries to grey.

Rust has come in waves since the 1970s but it mutates each time it reappears making it difficult to find a treatment that is effective. The only treatment known is to prune the plants and use fungicide, however, there is no reliable data documenting  the effectiveness of the fungicides on this rust. The farmers that can afford it  have treated the rust with fungicides in hopes to save a portion of their harvest.

The increase of rust in recent years is thought to be caused by climate change. Farmers in Nicaragua grow coffee on  the mountain, where the temperature is lower than rust can thrive in. However, an increase in precipitation and temperature at those elevations creates the perfect conditions for the fungus.

I visited Nicaragua in January of 2015 and saw how desperate farmers are for answers and a solution to save their way of life. Research is being done on resistant coffee plants but the replacement process would take years and is very expensive.

Read more

Latin America: how climate change will wipe out coffee crops – and farmers
> The Guardian

Fungus, Climate Change Threatening Big Part of Global Coffee Supply
> National Geographic

This blog post was an assignment for Societal Issues: Pesticides, Alternatives and the Environment (PLNTPTH 4597). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the class, Department of Plant Pathology or the instructor.


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