It remains to be seen exactly what the impact that the coffee rust fungus will have on the Latin American coffee industry for the 2012-2013 harvest, but estimations have been made of damages up to 40% and millions of US dollars in losses. Coffee rust is the fungus Hemileia vastatrix that infects the leaves of coffee plants, creating yellow spots on the surface of the leaves with rust-colored spores on the bottom. The fungus causes leaves to drop prematurely, leaving bare branches. Spores spread through water contact, infecting new leaves through splashing rain or dew dripping down the leaves and wind that carries the spores from one plantation to another. Reproduction is accelerated by high temperatures, with the life-cycle of the fungus ranging from 10 to 30 days.
Latin America has been plagued with coffee rust in the past. The fungus first appeared in Brazil in 1970, and quickly spread through South and Latin America. Today it is established in nearly every coffee growing region of the world. Although there is no one factor that the current epidemic in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua can be attributed to, excessive rains and poor cultural management certainly play a role. The quality of crop management can drastically reduce the impact that coffee rust has on a harvest, through the annual employment of good agricultural practices such as renovation of older plants, pruning, proper shade management, and adequate fertilization. Many studies – as well as our direct experience – have shown that there is a direct relationship between the social organization of farmers, the quality of technical advice they receive, and their management practices. In order to support coffee farmers and maintain a healthy and sustainable coffee market in the future, the industry needs to address this epidemic in a holistic way, by recommending technical changes in agricultural practices as well as tailoring business practices to strengthen economic and social relationships within the production chain.
Addressing Climate Change – Epidemics such as this in every agricultural crop are exacerbated by extreme climate conditions, such as excessive rainfall, constant high temperatures, and storms with high velocity winds. Buyers can support farmers who provide raw agricultural materials by supporting initiatives to reduce the environmental and economic impact of climate change, such as reforestation projects, and regional initiatives to increase biodiversity and food security.
Long Term Contracts – working together with organized producer groups to sign long-term contracts gives farmers the opportunity to look for additional long-term financing locally or internationally that can help them finance crop renovations and implement better management practices, reducing their vulnerability to both epidemics and economic changes over the long-term. It also creates an incentive for purchasers to support farmers with short-term solutions for issues like the rust epidemic that may vary from year to year.
Play an Active Roll in Creating Feedback Loops – purchasers can play a central role in connecting isolated producer groups and facilitate information exchanges to spread the adoption of innovative responses to diseases and pests. successful structural innovations such as different financing arrangements or changes in the base organization can also have a direct impact on management practices, and regional or even international exchanges between producer organizations can help younger or faltering organizations evaluate the best possible strategies to address their specific needs. Facilitating information exchange within producer groups strengthens the industry as whole while offering the most potential benefit to the more isolated and disempowered producer groups.