Coffee Rust Means Coffee Beans are Screwed, Thanks Climate Change


Coffee beans are having a rough go in Central America, on account of a fungus called “Coffee Rust” that’s fueled by climate change. 

If you drank a cup of coffee this morning, you’re not alone. Globally, we drink 1.6 billion cups of coffee a day. Coffee is the second most sought after commodity in the world, beat out only by oil. To say coffee is a big industry would be an understatement.

But most of us rarely think about where our coffee comes from. Sure, we may choose one roaster over another, but beyond that, few of us have a connection to where our coffee beans originated. But those coffee beans are going through some rough times, which sooner or later, may be reflected in your cup.

Currently there’s a fungus wreaking havoc on coffee crops in Central America. In the 2012-2013 crop year, the fungal parasite Hemileia vastatrix (also known as “coffee rust”) caused nearly $499 million in losses. A problem for the last six years, scientists have estimated that it could destroy up to 40 percent of the region’s crops. But while crops often deal with diseases, there is one thing that has made this one even worse: climate change.

Dramatic changes in weather patterns are fueling the spread of the coffee rust fungus. Coffee is very sensitive to weather, but while normal weather patterns used to be more consistent, fueled by climate change, now they are much more dramatic and chaotic.

“We used to think that seasons were not that important; now we see that they’re incredibly important,” Alvaro Gaitan, head of plant pathology at Colombia’s National Coffee Research Center told National Geographic.

The spores of the coffee rust fungus need a lot of moisture to grow, and while the right conditions for the fungus usually only exist during the rainy season, climate variation is making for heavier rains in the region, and more frequently. Further south, Brazil is dealing with the opposite problem: the drastic changes in climate have led to a drought, and it lost nearly one-fifth of the usual 55 million bags of coffee beans that it produces.

All of this climate related destruction of course had an impact on the price of coffee: Coffee prices rose worldwide from $1.20 per pound to nearly $2.20. Earlier this year, Starbucks decided to stop buying coffee until the market stabilized.

But while we may be forced to pay more for our coffee, that’s nothing compared to what the farmers of Central America are going through. According to a report by the International Coffee Organization, around 374,000 jobs were lost during the 2012-2013 season because of the rust, making for a significant social impact in local communities. In Guatemala alone, producers lost between a third and 60 percent of their total income, spurring the United Nations to provide emergency food aid to affected households.

A coalition that includes USAID and Starbucks was launched to provide assistance to producers, to the tune of $23 million.

What does the future look like for coffee? Complicated. Genetically modified rust-resistant seeds are one option, removing sick plants and replacing them with new ones is another. What the rust crisis is showing us is how fragile the coffee supply system is, and in a world where coffee is of high demand, it’s something we’re going to be forced to think about.

No matter what, your quiet routine of drinking your morning cup of coffee certainly isn’t as simple as it seems.

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Image: trophygeek

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.