The United States government is about to funnel $5 million into research that may help protect the global coffee supply. The investment, however, has nothing to do with concerns over domestic productivity—or even the increasingly inalienable right to get a serious cup of coffee, as The New York Times recently put it, everywhere.
Rather, the government's partnership with Texas A&M University’s World Coffee Research Center is geared at protecting the economies—and the residents—of some of the most dangerous and impoverished countries in the world from the scourge of coffee-leaf rust.
The disease, which resembles the fungus that infects rosebushes, appears as a bright scattering of orange dots on the underside of the coffee shrubs' leaves. As it spreads—from leaf to leaf, from plant to plant—it begins to damage the berries, too, ruining the crop. Rust, or roya, as it's called in Spanish, has been around for more than a century—it all but wiped out the coffee economy in what was then Ceylon starting in 1879, bringing about that island's famous tea plantations—but only recently began to show up in the high-altitude coffee-growing areas of Latin America, where some of the most coveted arabica beans are grown.
Coffee—and the seriousness with which a shot is pulled or a cup brewed, a suspender-wearing barista deliberately swirling a stream of hot water over the precious grounds—is increasingly symbolizing a consumer culture that’s willing to pay more for the highest-quality food products. The beverage is shifting away from its populist roots. A $5 pour-over may be a small luxury, but the coffee is the livelihood of growers and workers throughout Latin America. In a region that suffers from high poverty rates and entrenched violence, coffee exports are one of the few civil and economic bright spots.
Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala are all in the top five on the list of highest homicide rates in the world. In Honduras, which outpaced Guatemala as the leading coffee producer in the region in 2011, five of 10 residents live in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. Coffee may be big business, but it’s not big coffee: 85,000 small farmers, each moving fewer than 77 sixty-kilo bags of coffee a year, account for 90 percent of the country’s production. Two million Hondurans—roughly 23 percent of the population—are involved with the annual harvest. If, as the U.S. Agency for International Development estimates, production drops by 15 to 40 percent in the coming years owing to rust, a country that’s barely getting by would be devastated—and its impoverished, coffee-producing neighbors are facing a similarly grim future.
It used to be that rust couldn’t survive at high altitudes, protecting much of Latin America’s production. But the fungus is now running rampant in the mountains, and many believe that climate change is what has allowed it to worm its way into new territory. There’s been increasingly heavy rainfall across the region in the past couple of years, and the fungus loves a damp environment. A&M’s World Coffee Research Center believes it’s such climate change–driven inclement weather, not some mutant strain of roya, that’s spurring the spread.
“Wild and extreme climate events like this will continue and cause more problems as time goes on,” Tim Schilling, executive director of WCR, said last year. “We simply must invest in research to provide solutions to farmers while governments and the U.N. try to fix the global climate crisis.”
Fungicides have proved ineffective in combating the rust, which means that the plants themselves have to change. The simple solution is to switch over to robusta varieties of coffee. But that would likely bring to an end the popularity of Guatemala's and El Salvador’s beans among the hipster coffee set. While those high-end coffees are made almost exclusively with arabica beans, robusta harvests are largely processed into instant coffee. So plant breeders at WCR will be looking at other ways to develop rust-resistant arabica varieties with the help of the new federal cash.