Coffee Leaf Rust: It's Coming for Your Morning Joe

Are consumers pushing for organic coffee inadvertently harming the environment?
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A farmer harvests coffee beans at a farm near Sasaima, Colombia on May 14, 2012. (Jose Gomez/Reuters)

Progressive-minded café goers have long appreciated the value of an organic cup of coffee. Not only do conventional beans require synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, what's good for the bean--an organic approach--is also good for the grower. "When you think about organic coffee," a specialty foods trade magazine explains, "it means entire villages of people are able to rise from acute poverty to a living wage." Hence the cultural appeal of choosing to spend nearly an hour's wage on a latte. With one swipe of debit-card humanitarianism, you can help save the earth, empower the oppressed, and even salve your caffeinated conscience.

Could it be that well-intentioned but uninformed consumers, in pushing for organic coffee, are supporting an option that is less beneficial from an environmental and social justice perspective?

It's a terrific arrangement . . . until a fungus gets in the way. The most discussed topic at last month's annual meeting of the Specialty Coffee Association of America was Coffee Leaf Rust. This pathogen--which creates a suffocating orange dust on coffee tree leaves--entered the Americas via Brazil in the 1970s without causing much of a fuss. Until now. Spurred by unusually high rainfall over the last few years, it currently threatens to ruin as much as 40 percent of the 2013/14 Central American harvest. To appreciate the potential outcome of this threat, consider that the only reason Ceylon tea exists is because Coffee Leaf Rust comprehensively destroyed the island's once lush coffee plantations in the 1860s.

Of course, back then farmers didn't have access to the arsenal of agricultural weaponry we have today. As is often the case when a plant pathogen goes fungal, conventional artillery, in this case a synthetic fungicide called Triazaline, works far more effectively than the organic option, copper sulfate, to minimize the disease's impact. And it is here, at the vexed intersection of agricultural disease and how to treat it, that the progressive politics driving organic coffee consumption slows to a halt.

When it comes to evading Coffee Leaf Rust, one shouldn't overstate the organic/conventional distinction. Dozens of factors beyond the choice of chemicals collude to influence crop quality in the face of a fungus---elevation, soil history, access to shade, and grower experience, to name a few. Likewise, one mustn't dismiss the preventive role of fungal-resistant coffee varieties. In Colombia, farmers benefiting from extensive state-funded research planted rust resistant varieties in 2008 and, in so doing, effectively exterminated the fungus from the countryside (though experts claim that taste is compromised when heirloom beans aren't grown).

The immediate reality of Leaf Rust in Central America is as dire as it's ever been--especially for organic growers. Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, recently explained to me that organic smallholders are "in a terrible place," because "the best possible solution is an application of [synthetic] fungicides." Such fungicides are banned by organic standards. Only 3 percent of the crops in Guatemala are rust-resistant varieties. The rainy season is fast approaching. And international coffee prices are at historic lows. "To put a colorful spin on it," Rhinehart says, "these guys are just fucked."

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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