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336. If coffee leaf rust is a perfect storm, is there a silver lining?

2013-02-18 Comments Off on 336. If coffee leaf rust is a perfect storm, is there a silver lining?

A noted coffee breeder at the French research institute CIRAD has suggested that the coffee leaf rust emergency in Central America is the result of a “perfect storm.”  Is there a silver lining anywhere in those storm clouds?


In searching for a silver lining in a pretty dark cloud, I don’t for a moment mean to trivialize the economic and social impact of the coffee leaf rust crisis.  Just wondering whether there might be anything worth salvaging amid the wreckage.

  • Awareness.

Last month I referred here to Nick Cho’s provocative post on the social impact of boutique coffee, and I have continued to reflect on it ever since.  The author recalls his own time living and working in the midst of poverty.  He refers to “the true human condition of the coffee world” and the difficulty of keeping it in focus with the interposition of distance and the passage of time.  He closes with a radical call to arms modest plea for increased awareness.

Accounts of the devastating impacts of coffee leaf rust might evoke pity and provoke charity for the poor farmer.  Those may be appropriate responses in a time of real emergency.  But pity and charity are fleeting sentiments.

Beyond a momentary wave of pity, perhaps the rust crisis can help increase and sustain awareness about the structural challenges faced by smallholder farmers.  Help bring into clearer resolution the daunting challenge farmers face: manage production risks that are multiplying in the era of climate change.  Help us see that while a failed crop may be appropriate cause for pity, a bumper crop is cause for reverence for the farmers who produce it.

And beyond charity, perhaps the rust crisis can help bring about, as a lasting response to the underlying realities that smallholder farmers face, a brand of commerce in which both sides assume their fair share of the risk in the coffee trade.

A plea for awareness of smallholder realities is not a call to revolution.  But a diligent awareness of origin in the marketplace — one that informs business practices and trading relationships — can have a profound effect on the livelihoods of the smallholder farmers at the other end of the coffee chain.

In three recent conversations with noted coffee writers, I have asked how the issues farmers face at origin might get more air time in “boutique” coffee circles.  Mr. Cho’s post helped focus some attention on smallholder realities, however briefly.  Perhaps the scourge of coffee leaf rust, which directly affects the sourcing of every coffee roaster out there, may focus more sustained attention on the lived realities of smallholder farmers.

  • Research.

Not a few industry observers have used the current coffee leaf rust crisis to advocate for support for World Coffee Research, a vital and ambitious industry-related initiative to conduct the kinds of research that have been desperately needed and sorely lacking in specialty coffee for years.  WCR doesn’t just promise practical responses to the challenges farmers are facing — it proposes to generate them in ways that increase the capacity of local coffee research institutes to perform this work into the future.

What difference does research make?  Nicaragua, for example, does not have a publicly funded coffee research institute and is reeling this harvest from the effects of rust.  Colombia, whose national coffee research institute CENICAFE is heavily funded by public revenue, has struggled with coffee leaf rust since 2008 but had a ready response thanks to decades of breeding work.  You may not be convinced by the quality of the Castillo cultivar in the cup, but it is hard to argue with a farmer’s impulse to do take measures to keep her coffee alive and hard not to be impressed by the agility of the country’s response.

  • Extension.

Most coffee-growing countries have limited capacity to deliver agronomic assistance to farmers.  Even Colombia’s powerful Federación Nacional de Cafeteros doesn’t have as many extension agents as it would like.  But at least Colombia has a standing army of field agents who have been able to support the country’s massive, coordinated response to leaf rust.  Nicaragua reportedly has vowed to mobilize an army of 15,000 agronomists.  But a conscript army cobbled together after the enemy has already taken command of the field may be too little, too late.

If the coffee leaf rust emergency increases awareness about the challenges that smallholders face in an era of climate change and builds some momentum for investment in the kinds of research and extension that can help them meet those challenges more effectively, there may have been a silver lining in the clouds of the perfect storm.


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Below, some of the best reading I have come across over the past few weeks on the coffee leaf rust emergency.


It seems that ever since governments in Central America started declaring national emergencies in response to coffee leaf rust, leading voices in the specialty coffee industry have started talking about it with the urgency normally reserved for…well…emergencies.  Some of the best perspectives I have seen:

  • SCAA Symposium Director Peter Giuliano, who has rightly organized a session of this year’s event around rust, weighs in here.
  • Thompson Owen of Sweet Maria’s and Coffee Shrub fame, who has always impressed me with his awareness of the unique constraints and vulnerabilities of smallholder farmers, published this excellent report from a recent visit to source in Guatemala.

Science (and Industry).

Some scientific perspectives from sources who deeply understand specialty:

  • The industry’s own in-house scientist Emma Bladyka posted this article to the SCAA web site.  The bibliography alone is an excellent resource.

Coffee media.

Two of my favorite coffee sites have also published helpful round-ups of the situation: