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."