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.

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."

Fifteen hundred miles away, in Austin, Texas, on a recent breezy morning at a coffee cart called Picnik, there were no worries. Owner Naomi Seifter smiled as she prepared an organic pour over of stunning coffee from the Olympia Coffee Company. She spoke fluently (and rapidly) about "micro-lots" and "single origin" berries. When it came to the organic designation, she hypothesized that most consumers "want the label" because, however vaguely, they believe organic methods "minimize the toxins in the beans." Neither she nor several other coffee bar owners with whom I spoke knew about Leaf Rust.

This understandable disconnection between producer and consumer bothers Steve Savage, a plant pathologist and agricultural economist who recently retired from Colorado State University. Savage believes that the short-term solution to the Leaf Rust problem is "quite feasible": spray synthetic fungicides. The fact that doing so would require organic growers to lose their organic designation for three years should, as he sees it, spur consumers to get over their irrational organic fetish and disabuse themselves of the label's virtuous connotations. He notes that the copper fungicides that are authorized under the organic standards not only work poorly, but "are also far more problematic for the environment" than the "more potent and safe synthetic options."

His position points to a possible paradox: 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?

Peter Giuliano, Symposium Director for the Specialty Coffee Association of America, isn't willing to fully cede this point. Although he admits that copper sulfate has environmental problems and agrees that it is "not as effective" as non-organic fungicides, he also thinks that when it comes to the organic/conventional divide "it's really not that simple." The greatest benefit that the organic label offers, he says, is some level of clarity in a sea of confusion. "Organic is the only way we know what's happening on a farm and that's good for the consumer," he says. He wants to preserve the label's integrity.

As the Savage-Giuliano disagreement suggests, maintaining a relatively meaningful organic standard in the Central American coffee business--one that adds value to both bean and the bean grower's bottom line--may, under current conditions, require something that's all too rare in the organic/conventional debate: compromise. Organic standards in the United States have a lenient legacy of making exceptions to preexisting rules: non-organic hops for beer, non-organic elderberry juice for food coloring, and non-organic dill weed oil for pickles, to name three examples. Why not allow a one-time application of a synthetic fungicide in an emergency situation?

"That is super appealing to me as a coffee buyer," Giuliano says. Savage agrees: "As a scientist I think that would be very reasonable." If nothing else, this is a starting point--one that the organic coffee industry should waste no time in embracing.