Coffee, coffee, everywhere, but not a drop to drink. This scenario could be realized in the distant future, John Vandermeer, professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology says, if the epidemic of something called “coffee rust disease” is not contained.
Vandermeer and his wife Ivette Perfecto, George W. Pack Professor of Ecology in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, have been researching coffee for nearly 20 years in Mexico and Puerto Rico — and both are co-authors on a recently published paper by Timothy James, associate professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, about the fungus responsible for an onslaught of coffee rust disease, which kills the leaves of coffee plants.
“Latin America is experiencing unprecedented epidemics of coffee rust, so identification of its natural enemies could aid in developing management strategies or in pinpointing species that could be used for biocontrol,” James wrote in a press release earlier this week.
In particular, Vandermeer and Perfecto are trying to understand how coffee rust disease interacts with its environment, and also how other fungi help mitigate its effects. According to the study, certain fungal parasites already native to coffee leaves could be developed as “biological weapons” to fight against coffee rust.
However, Perfecto said, the risk in treating already infected plants is the potential of killing off the beneficial fungi.
“Our approach is mostly one of prevention, keeping the farm strong and healthy with a lot of natural enemies that can combat the pests, rather than trying to solve a problem after it has emerged, which has been the approach of agronomists and pest-control management people,” Perfect said in the release.
Coffee rust disease has been attacking coffee since 1912, reaching epidemic status in 2012 and causing a reduction in coffee production by up to 30 percent in some places, Vandermeer said.
The fungus was responsible for completely wiping out coffee production in South Asia in the 19th century, he said, which led to its subsequent farming in Latin America. There, rust has always been an issue, but was never as prevalent as it has been in recent years.
Vandermeer said, as farmers changed their ways of production — which has involved getting rid of trees and, as a result, exposing plants to higher winds — the disease spread more easily.
“It’s been an epidemic every single year since 2012, so it’s the third year in a row that it’s epidemic,” Vandermeer said.
Despite this, he said, coffee prices on a consumer level haven’t yet changed noticeably.
“It’s probably increasing the prices a little bit on the level of the farm, not really for you all,” Vandermeer said. “Ultimately, it probably will have an effect on coffee prices.”
Vandermeer noted that the research isn’t just about saving everyone’s favorite morning drink — as he puts it, “the world loves coffee” — but it’s also about preserving the livelihoods of workers internationally.
“Coffee is the livelihood for millions of small-scale farmers around the world,” he said. “Every place you have tropical landscape with tropical vegetation, you have coffee … because of that, it’s also the economic basis of a whole different bunch of countries in the underdeveloped world.”
Stressing that, for coffee farmers, coffee rust disease is a serious threat, Vandermeer also advocated for the purchase of fair trade coffee.
“They own their farms and coffee is the basis of their farms, so it’s been putting them in jeopardy,” he said. “If you want to be ethical about the farmers that are losing their land because of this, make sure that you buy fair trade coffee, because fair trade coffee is supporting the small-scale farmers that need your help.”