Monday, June 9, 2014

Coffee Rust, Royal Fungus

WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is stepping up efforts to help Central American farmers fight a devastating coffee disease — and hold down the price of your morning cup.
At issue is a fungus called coffee rust that has caused more than $1 billion in damage across Latin American region. The fungus is especially deadly to Arabica coffee, the bean that makes up most high-end, specialty coffees.
Already, it is affecting the price of some of those coffees in the U.S.  "We are concerned because we know coffee rust is already causing massive amounts of devastation," said Raj Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
He is expected to announce a $5 million partnership with Texas A&M University's World Coffee Research center to try to eliminate the fungus.
But the government isn't doing this just to protect our $4 specialty coffees, as much as Americans love them. The chief concern is about the economic security of these small farms abroad. If farmers lose their jobs, it increases hunger and poverty in the region and contributes to violence and drug trafficking.
Washington estimates that production could be down anywhere from 15 percent to 40 percent in coming years, and that those losses could mean as many as 500,000 people could lose their jobs. Though some countries have brought the fungus under control, many of the poorer coffee-producing countries in Latin America don't see the rust problem getting better anytime soon.
Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica have all been hard hit.
Much of the blander, mass-produced coffee in this country comes from Asia and other regions. Most of the richer, more expensive coffees are from small, high altitude farms in Central America. Because the farms are smaller, farmers there often don't have enough money to buy the fungicides needed or lack the training to plant in ways that could avoid contamination.
The rust, called roya in Spanish, is a fungus that is highly contagious due to airborne fungal spores. It affects different varieties, but the Arabica beans are especially susceptible. Rainy weather worsens the problem.

 I wonder how Kona Joe's is doing on the big island?  Bruno did an impressive job with our tour.

Ed Winkle


  1. As much as there is currently a strong opposition to GMOs in Hawaii, you can bet that if coffee rust started attacking kona and there was a genetically engineered solution, they would adopt it without thinking twice about it, even faster than they did for the papaya...

    Genetic engineering is not always relevant or the best solution for every disease, and at least coffee is mostly planted from seeds, so it has more genetic diversity than other crops also devastated or endangered by global diseases, such as banana, which is a single plant, cloned to several billion identical copies. I don't know why coffee is studied in Texas, it should be Washington, Seattle is the world capital of coffee! ;)
    P.S. It's "Roya Fungus", Ed, nothing "Royal" about it...

  2. Diseases are a royal pain in the plant! We have been picking up papaya at Kroger's when on sale. There is so much waste in that fruit, you throw half of it away.

    I am mistrustful of taking a trait from another specie and inserting it into the host specie via gun, virus or bacteria. Too many things can go wrong. There are no great threats to our food supply because of it that we know of but I thought the Goss's Wilt outbreak in corn was linked to it.

    The coffee industry is a strange one in where it is raised and who manages it. It is probably one of the last strongholds for the little farmer like tobacco was.


    1. I agree the old gene gun technology could easily insert the target gene sequence in the wrong location, or maybe the metallic gen "bullets" could break the chromosome in a way too destructive for even the most resilient chromosome to self-repair, but that's not the case anymore, we know where to slice it between "programs" so to call, or in inactive segments of the genetic code, or at any precise location. This past month, scientists have built an entire bacteria-like artificial organism entirely from scratch genetic code that they positioned exactly as they wanted to. They still need a real bacteria shell with a nucleus emptied from its chromosomes, but they inserted their own artificial chromosomes.

      If the biotech companies produce seeds engineered to resist disease A, they would lose their market immediately if they were less resistant to disease or condition B as a consequence of damaged genetic code. The only risks I see with genetic engineering is a little less genetic diversity, because the first GE generation is reproduced vegetatively by splitting cells into hundreds of plants before being grown conventionally for seed, which may not do anything for genetic diversity either for self-pollinating plants or when both parents are from the same GE original stock: They'll still get half of their genetic code from the female plant, half from the male, but what good is that if both have identical code?

      The second potential issue is if we become too lazy and less vigilant about genetic engineering, for instance building new GE generations based on previous ones instead of starting from scratch non-GE stock every time: This may result in a problem that's not apparent after several generations to slowly build in until a point where we can't even identify the cause of the problem, or we have less original non-GE stock to build from.

      For instance, a nerd scientist could conceive the genius idea that we should get rid of all the "junk DNA", these gene sequences that are never activated, and of the redundant DNA. Wheat is a good example: It has cross-pollinated naturally several times that its genome is now 5 times bigger than the human genome. Most of this code is either junk or redundant once or more, so it would make it easier for biologists to simplify the genetic model of the organism they work on. Until we find out a century later that this junk DNA actually serves a purpose that we didn't know about, or that the redundancy is critical to aging healthily or self-repairing from diseased cells, or whatever. That's more a risk with the "technology" rather than "biology" part of "biotech" though, scientists are well aware of these risks.