Leaf Rust Kills Organic Coffee Crops

A seemingly eternal threat to growing healthy organic coffee is a fungus that is native to the tropics where coffee is grown. Leaf rust attacks coffee crops and leaf rust kills organic coffee crops. If an organic grower is unable to treat the problem with non-chemical means he risks losing his crop and his livelihood. The fungus’ proper name is Hemileia vastatrix. When it is not controlled the disease kills coffee plants and reduces coffee growers to poverty. It starts as an orange to yellow somewhat powdery discoloration on the underside of the leave of the coffee plant. It begins as spots, less than a millimeter in diameter and grows to millimeters diameter with a pale yellow discoloration. It is known among Latin American coffee growers as “roya.” The issue for organic growers is that quarantine and destruction of individual plants is not always effective. Thus a grower who has put the time, effort, and money into getting organic coffee certification may lose everything unless he turns his back on organic practices and spays the heck out of his coffee plants. Then he can only sell his produce at regular coffee prices and not the higher prices that good quality organic coffee commands. If he loses his crop he needs to replant, probably after spraying the soil, and wait several years for new coffee plants to reach maturity.

Why Not Just Spray?

Before organic coffee became popular growers use a copper based chemical to retard the growth of coffee leaf rust. Then they switched to other synthetic fungicides. One of the older complaints, before folks worried about being poisoned by chemicals, was the copper treatment and others affected taste and produced a product that did not sell well nor command a good price. As leaf rust kills organic coffee crops today this is still an issue. A grower could decide to treat with a modern fungicide and save his coffee crop. He would then try to sell his coffee beans and hope that the treatment did not devalue his product compared to regular coffee. Then he would need to resume organic farming practices and wait the usual three years until he is certified to have avoided non-organic techniques long enough to be certified again.

Follow the Money

As leaf rust kills organic coffee crops the issue, as always, is money. Starbucks, McDonalds, Dunkin Donuts, and many others have gotten into organic coffee in a big way. This movement has been good for the small grower and good for the environment and good for coffee drinkers who get a better cup of coffee. It has always been about pressure from consumers who want to avoid impurities in their coffee and who want to protect the environment. What will these buyers do if their hand-picked growers need to spray to stay alive? Will they create a middle category of treated coffee? Growers will not stay with the organic movement if they constantly need to recertify and do not get the rewards of better pay for their coffee each and every year. At some point buyers and consumers may need to adopt the practical approaches that farmers have used for years and accept spraying when it is necessary to keep the sources of good coffee alive.

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