Cool Beans: The new Rust Belt — the coffee industry’s hidden epidemic

Adriana Sanchez | Daily Trojan

Coffee has hit its lowest price per pound in years, and the only direction for prices to go is up. Coffee prices are increasing — to this statement, Ray-Ban- sporting, salted-caramel-latte-sipping Angelenos and Central American coffee farmers both vigorously nod in agreement.

We pay more per cup, and more per pound — though the former is due to inflation and the upsurge in charging for aesthetic, and the latter is due to a resurgence of a debilitating disease that affects worldwide coffee production of which that most coffee drinkers are ignorant.

The largest stunt in the growth of the coffee industry and cause of failure for many farms is coffee rust. This disease is caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, a species found almost anywhere coffee is grown. Another form of coffee rust, Hemileia coffeicola, is confined to central and western Africa, but can be just as damaging as its more widespread cousin.

Coffee rust is easily identifiable by the large yellow lesions it causes on coffee leaves; it spreads throughout infected plants and to new ones, causing plants to die prematurely.

The next generation of coffee plants grow from the fallen fruit, but rust prevents the plants from reaching their fruit-bearing stages. Its origins are uncertain, but this fungus had not appeared in Central America or Southeast Asia — both major suppliers for the planet’s coffee production — before the late 1800s.

Coffee dates back well before the 1500s, and it is said to have first been discovered in Arabia and Ethiopia. When the Dutch realized the industry’s potential, they began setting up farms in their colonies, including Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). Sri Lanka became one of the largest coffee producers, exporting over 100 million pounds per year by the 1870s.

But in that same time period, farmers began noticing yellow splotches on their plants — coffee rust had arrived from overseas, and from there it continued to spread.

The fungus slowly wiped out farms and plants — the major exporters of coffee at the time were soon unable to continue growing the plant at the same volume. Today Sri Lanka is known for its tea, as the region turned to another commodified beverage. The country’s coffee industry never returned to the size of its former glory.

The fungus hit Brazil, now the largest exporter of coffee, in the late 1900s. 2013 saw another breakout of coffee rust in Colombia and Central America, and the U.S. Agency for International Development reported that nearly half a million people from the affected areas who relied on the crop to survive lost their food security and means of living.

In 2014, under the Obama administration, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Texas A&M University’s World Coffee Research partnered to study coffee rust and eliminate it. Researchers are still uncertain about how to eliminate rust completely, but we do know of some relation between the ways coffee is grown and its susceptibility to rust.

The World Coffee Research reports a correlation between shade and rust — coffee that is grown in full sunlight has less rust, but is stressed under sun exposure and less able to fight the fungus. But in creating open fields with maximum sun exposure, deforestation is inevitable, and thus continues the clearing of rainforests and the decimation of hundreds of species (not to mention our protective ozone layer and fresh air, for that matter).

Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora are two major species of coffee. The former is responsible for most third wave brews — it is more valuable because of its better flavor. The latter, however, is cheaper to grow and has more resistant leaves.

Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers set up a laboratory called Cenicafe to conduct research on growing species of coffee that are rust resistant without sacrificing flavor. One of the researchers’ main targets is to increase the genetic diversity among beans for increased resistance to illness, climate change, insects and other harmful effects.

Growing coffee is a struggle on countless fronts — environmental protection, farmer protection, even biological preservation of species and the creation of hybrid ones — these are all issues that the coffee industry contributes to.

Coffee keeps you awake, and at the very least, you ought to stay woke — supporting research and spreading awareness are the simplest things we can do to protect farmers, the environment and everyone’s beloved crop.

Breanna de Vera is a sophomore majoring in English and journalism. She is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Cool Beans,” runs every other Thursday.