Coffee leaf rust is spreading through farms in southern Colombia, according to local reports. This is worrying news. After frost and drought, leaf rust is Arabica’s greatest threat and can devastate crops if preventative steps are not taken. The situation may be exacerbated by heavy rains caused by the weather pattern known as ‘La Niña’. This could have a negative impact on both the quality and quantity of specialty coffee produced in subsequent years.
Leaf rust, or Roya in the Spanish, is a fungus that attacks the leaves of Arabica plants. If left untreated, it will gradually defoliate the tree, severely reducing yields and ultimately killing the plant. It is spread by spores, which are carried by wind and rain.
Most plantations in Colombia habitually suffer from a small amount of leaf rust. But the disease now appears to be spreading rapidly through farms in Huila state, as well as further south in Nariño. Both are prime specialty producing areas. A report published locally asserts that, in June, plots in Huila were identified with infestation levels of between 15% and 50%. Members of the Mercanta team have seen the problem firsthand during visits to the area in March and July.
Colombia’s Meteorological Institute (Ideam) has warned that the situation could worsen with the onset of the ‘La Niña’ weather phenomenon (*see below), which is predicted to bring above average rainfall to the country from September through to early 2011. An Ideam directive warns: “If coffee growers do not take preventive measures in July and August, it is possible that by the end of 2010 there will be a crisis caused by damage inflicted by Roya [coffee rust] on coffee plantations”.
Leaf rust can be prevented by spraying with fungicides at intervals during the rainy season. However, spraying is not cheap, and many of the country’s small, poorer farmers ceased regular treatment after losing large amounts of money as a result of the collapse at the end of 2008 of a country-wide pyramid scheme network, which swindled hundreds of thousands of low income Colombians out of their savings. For farmers these losses were compounded by last year’s poor harvest, when Colombia’s Arabica production fell to a 33-year low as a result of bad weather and leaf rust. Now many farmers, particularly in the country’s poorer Southern growing regions, have little or no emergency funds left to combat the disease.
The problem is that, when leaf rust becomes rife, it is difficult to cure. Particularly worrying for specialty buyers is that recent guidance from Colombia’s National Coffee-Growers’ Federation (FNC) advocates replanting with Catimor and other Timor hybrid varietals. These Robusta hybrids are resistant to leaf rust but rarely produce top quality coffee on their own, and the risk is that farms could lose finer Typica and Caturra varietals.
The implication is that truly outstanding specialty coffees from Colombia could become harder to find, and even more expensive. Meanwhile prices across the board are likely to remain high.
*‘La Niña’ is the counterpart of the periodic ‘El Niño’ weather pattern. The former is caused by lower than averagesea surface temperatures across the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, the latter by higher than average sea surface temperatures. Both seriously disrupt weather patterns in parts of the Americas and Asia, causing extreme weather conditions such as drought and flooding. El Niño, meaning ‘the boy’ in Spanish, refers to the baby Jesus, because the phenomenon is usually noticed around Christmas.