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Coffee Rust Epidemic: Is there any Hope?

 With the recent eruption of coffee rust altering Central America coffee growers at the highest level in recorded history, we asked local roasters in Boise what affect that has on coffee production and what steps they are taking to deal with this unprecedented crisis.

Harvey Stanley a roaster and administrator at Rembrandts Coffee House and Full Circle Exchange says, “It will definitely have an impact on next year’s beans,” and that they, “may have to look elsewhere to find the same type of bean and flavor” for their blends. He said, “It’s difficult to pinpoint what effect that will have locally right now.” Those areas affected will be harvested for next year’s coffee.


Coffee rust is a fungus destroying the coffee plant’s ability to fully produce and allow the ripening the coffee cherry. The primary type of bean being attacked is the Arabica bean known for its more delicious flavor. The Robusta beans, not harmed by the rust and with a taste more tart and bitter, will probably replace many of the first hand consumer product you would brew at home or at the office.

With over 370,000 jobs forecasted to be lost in Central America this year there are many factors contributing to the rampant outbreak of the disease and not much farmers or roasters can do about it now.

Climate changes, combined with the incredible demand for coffee encouraging farming practices to radically increase supply in climates too harsh to the coffee plant, as well as loose restrictions on pesticides have all contributed to the outbreak. Ecologist and coffee specialist Dr. John Vandermeer of the University of Michigan and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and at SNRE, said in an interview with Science Daily that, “sun-grown fields lack another fungus, and 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 the white halo fungus. Without white halo fungus to restrain it, coffee rust, also known as roya, has been able to ravage coffee plantations from Colombia to Mexico.” Vandermeer also noted, "The integrity of this once-complicated ecosystem has been slowly breaking down, which is what happens when you try to grow coffee like corn.” He continues with concern, "This year it seems to have hit a tipping point, where the various things that are antagonistic to the [coffee rust] in a complex ecosystem have declined to the point where the disease can escape from them and go crazy."

Looking at the present and into the future, it may take the summer or fall for the fungus to be in remission, and another two – three years for coffee farmers ruined by this years disaster to begin seeing healthy plants, healthy coffee cherries, and profits restored; if they can wait that long. Many members of the International Coffee Organization (ICO) has outlined a six-page focus from salvation to prevention and keeping the public informed on the domestic and international effect this will have on farmers, harvesters, roasters, and coffee entrepreneurs.


“This is the nature of farming and being dependent on crops and their seasons,” one roaster said with a serious tone.

“How do you feel about the workers and farmers loosing their jobs and farms,” I asked.

“Bad, it’s terrible economically and sad at what it will do to their families. What can we do?”

The ICO who has a plan to help sustain the coffee economy by strengthening “the global coffee sector” through international financing alternatives designed “to serve the long-term interests of coffee farmers,” offers hope especially  with the constant global demand for this agricultural product second to oil production.


At the first International Coffee Rust Summit and the summary of responses to the crisis prepared by the Regional Cooperative Program for the Technical Development and Modernization of Coffee Production (PROMECAFE) and the Inter-American Institute for the Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA)  there is hope. With needs of the local farmers and harvesters increasing and demand continuing to rise, the IICA in statement six of their immediate responses has already put in place, "A program to support vulnerable populations such as small farmers and laborers and their families through food security and nutrition programs, generation of alternative employment opportunities, and social compensation measures." There is always hope.

Tom Lobaugh

Inspiration Consultant