The estimates of productive and economic losses to coffee leaf rust in Central America are nothing short of staggering. Half of all coffee affected. Hundreds of millions of pounds of production losses projected. Hundreds of thousands of jobs lost. Economic losses running into the billions of dollars.
Against this backdrop, we should not be surprised by the rising chorus of calls for urgent and decisive action, or the new industry investments being announced every week. We need sprinters who can effectively mobilize field-level actions now, during this production cycle, to mitigate the impacts of coffee rust on the 2013/14 harvest. But we also need to think about the middle distances, and how farmers can invest in making their farms productive again over the next 3-5 years. And we need marathon runners who can commit to the patient, long-term work of building local capacity to support the coffee sector over the long haul.
The current coffee leaf rust crisis in Central America may have come on quickly, but it was not created overnight. Lasting responses will take time, and will require more cross-sector collaboration than even the pathologically collaborative specialty coffee industry is accustomed to.
THE SPRINT: Acting now to mitigate the impact of rust on next year’s harvest.
Only an urgent and precise response to the coffee rust outbreak in Central America can prevent the 2012/13 production losses from increasing catastrophically during the 2013/14 cycle.
But people who know coffee agronomy better than I do seem to agree that the adage about the relative weight of prevention and cure actually understates the case when it comes to coffee rust. In this context, an ounce of prevention may be worth way more than a pound of cure. In other words, a short-term response focused on controlling the current rust outbreak is necessary but not sufficient. We must try to save as much coffee from succumbing to rust as we can, and then turn our collective attention quickly to preventing rust from breaking out where it hasn’t already and renovating the coffee that is beyond saving.
THE MIDDLE DISTANCE: Renovating the coffeelands in Central America.
Central America needed massive renovation even before the coffee rust crisis hit this harvest. This report by a leading daily newspaper in El Salvador cites Ministry of Agriculture research showing the average age of coffee plants to be 50 years! Between the advanced age of the region’s coffee and the current rust blight, there is an urgent need for massive renovation. The estimates I have seen suggest that proper renovation in Central America will cost between $800 million and $1 billion. We need banks to finance the program and farmers and coops and nurseries and extension agents and nonprofits to implement it. And it must all be done in close collaboration with the research community and industry to ensure that the varieties that farmers plant will effectively resist diseases like rust while meeting the market’s stringent demands for cup quality. It will take 3-5 years for the new wave of Central American coffee to begin generating real yields and income for farmers. In the meantime, we also need governments and nonprofits and coops and others to help coffee growing families navigate the income gap.
THE MARATHON: Strengthening national coffee programs.
When Colombia was hit hard by coffee rust beginning in 2008, it was arguably better positioned than any other coffee growing country in the world to respond to the outbreak.
Its coffee research institute CENICAFE had a 50-year-old breeding program. It had produced a series of high-yielding, disease-resistant hybrids. The most recent of these, Castillo, was released in 2005 and showing promising signs in the field.
Its National Coffee Growers Federation had a standing army of agronomists based in its vast network of field offices all over the coffeelands, ready to lead the charge against rust.
And it had public funds to subsidize a massive campaign to renovate the country’s coffee fields.
Even with all this going its way, Colombia’s production is only now beginning to rise again after five years of steady declines. Colombia’s national coffee program dates to 1927. Its research center to 1938. Its breeding program to 1961. Colombia’s national coffee program, in short, is arguably the most powerful in the world. So if it took Colombia five years to reverse the slide, how long will it take in Central America? Guatemala’s Minister of Agriculture suggests 15 years.
And that is just to respond to the last crisis. Serious investment — and probably public policy reform — is needed to position Central America’s national coffee programs to respond more effectively to the next crisis, and to develop the research and extension services farmers need to remain profitable and competitive into a future that promises increased production risk in an era of climate change and continued market volatility.
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PACING OURSELVES: Collective action for “Collective Impact.”
One of the Big Ideas being advanced next week at the SCAA Symposium is the idea of Collective Impact, a vision of lasting, large-scale social change driven by broad and relentless cross-sector engagement.
So many of the industry’s exemplary innovations to make the coffee trade more sustainable have come from novel collaborations. The record suggests, however, that the most intractable issues in the coffeelands — hunger, poverty, adapting to climate change, and even responding to rust — require even broader and more concerted collaborations.
Together we make massive investments every year that are generally designed to make the coffee trade more sustainable and help the industry contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The surest way to make the whole of those investments greater than the sum of their parts may be to think of the phases of a comprehensive response as legs in a relay race: the sprinters pass the baton to the milers who pass it to the marathoners. They are separate events calling for different actors with different skills, but they are all working together as part of the same race. The Collective Impact script can help us pace ourselves:
(1.) Set a common agenda specific to the sector.
(2.) Define clear indicators of success together. Measure progress against shared objectives together.
(3.) Leverage one another’s investments more effectively through mutually reinforcing activities.
(4.) Communicate exhaustively.
(5.) Put someone on point. Make the the Collective Impact someone’s day job. So many good collaborative ideas have come up short in the past because no one owned them and everyone was contributing on a volunteer basis during evenings and weekends.
The coffee rust crisis has generated so much need in the coffeelands and so much good will in the industry to address it that there is a natural impulse to rush to action. It may be that the biggest long-term returns will be on the investment in meetings — talking and listening and planning in the service of a Collective Impact agenda.