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A Bristol Rave Was Nearly Ruined By Coffee Rust

Organisers of the world’s first coffee rave have had their supply of beans depleted due to “coffee rust,” a fungal disease destroying coffee plants in the Dominican Republic.

by Gareth May
28 April 2015, 10:00am

Photo via Flickr user Martin Fisch

The sound system breaks down. The cops turn up. Someone takes a flaming poi poi to the face and the ensuing argument over whether or not to call an ambulance puts everyone on a downer quicker than sunrise.

On the spectrum of "when raves go bad," a fungal disease infecting tropical plants sounds pretty innocuous. Who's going to care about the yucca looking a bit peaky if they're Hoovering up Charlie quicker than a Dyson?

But, then again, this is no ordinary rave.

Next month, Bristol hosts the world's first "tropical coffee rave." Part of city wide food festival called Food Connections, the morning starts with dance workshops to the sounds of the Caribbean (a mix of calypso, cumbia, and merengue if you were wondering) and end with shots of Dominican Republic espresso. A serious kick-start to the day.

While the idea of drinking coffee at a rave isn't exactly groundbreaking (Morning Gloryville have been waking commuters up with disco and gulps of caffeine since 2013), this is not your average cup of joe.

For the first time since the last era of working sail ships, the rave's supply of coffee beans will be travelling to England the old fashioned way—over the high seas.

READ MORE: The US Government Is Treating Latin American Coffee Fungus to Prevent Violence and Drug Trafficking

The beans are being imported by South West sail-power trading company New Dawn Traders straight from the Dominican Republic and sailed emission free aboard the pioneering (and engineless) Tres Hombres, a 32-metre schooner. The boat can be tracked as it makes its way across the seas to Falmouth, arriving at 4.30 PM on Friday May 1, where it meets with a welcome committee, before the coffee is hoisted off and delivered by horse and cart (yes, really) onto a First Great Western train up to Bristol.

Literally, as you read this, the beans are riding the waves of the Atlantic.

To put this into some perspective, the last time a shipment of coffee passed through Falmouth from Brazil was in August 1919 on the three-mast schooner Harry & Verva, sailed by Captain Hallett.

Between 2008 and 2012 Colombia's coffee production went from 12.6 million 60 kg bags a year in 2007 to 7.7 m bags in 2012, due to rust-damaged crop. According to USAID, coffee rust caused Latin America more than $1 billion in "economic damage" in 2012 alone.

Makes you think, doesn't it? And that's kind of what the coffee rave is all about. Sure, you can wear a onesie and prance about like a loon, but the point is that the farmers who produce our coffee should be supported. It's something that has been starkly underlined with the news that New Dawn Traders haven't bagged as much coffee for the rave as originally planned, jeopardising the event.

"While it's a fun story, there's actually a serious message, as we haven't got as much coffee coming from the Dominican Republic as we'd hoped," Alex Geldenhuys of New Dawn Traders explains. "This is because the Dominican Republic is suffering from coffee rust, a fungal disease that affects altitude-grown coffee plants, especially the sought after specialty coffee that is Arabica."

Coffee rust is caused by the hemileia vastatrix fungus. The equivalent of a coffee plague, its arrival often sparks desolation of entire annual yields—and then some.

The "coffee leaf disease" was first reported by English explorer Reverend H. J. Berkeley whilst travelling in the Lake Victoria region of East Africa in 1861. Upon his return in 1869, he wrote in the Gardeners' Chronicle about a fungus he'd found on some coffee leaves; nicotine-coloured, cigarette style burn marks that caused the plant to stop producing beans and to eventually die.

Since that discovery, coffee rust (or "roya," "coffee leaf rust," and "CLR," as it can also be known) has popped up all over the globe, eradicating entire plantations and the livelihoods that depend on their fruit.

During the 2012/13 coffee harvests, it ravaged Central America and the Caribbean. Every country that produces Arabica beans (considered superior to the disease-resistant Robusta) were hit the hardest and according to the International Coffee Organisation, production fell by 20 percent and almost 400,000 coffee workers across Central America lost their jobs. It was the worst epidemic since 1976.

Coffee rust at a farm in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. Photo courtesy Neil Palmer, International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

Coffee rust at a farm in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. Photo courtesy Neil Palmer, International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

The impact of such episodes trickles down into all aspects of the industry and beyond (in the wake of the 2012/13 epidemic, the US government announced $5 million for researchers at Texas A&M University to find a way to kill the fungus because they were worried Central American farmers would swap coffee for cocaine).

At trade level, the impact can be great. Between 2008 and 2012 production went from 12.6 million 60 kg bags a year in 2007 to 7.7 m bags in 2012, due to Colombia's rust-damaged crop. As supply dipped, buyers went elsewhere. According to USAID, coffee rust caused Latin America more than $1 billion in "economic damage" in 2012 alone.

Of course, at consumer level this impact is a relatively faceless one. Instant coffee isn't affected (it's made from Robusta beans) and your favourite artisan coffee house will just source beans from elsewhere. Although bags of beans and ground coffee do rise from regions suffering with the cruel kiss of coffee rust, there's always another bag from another region.

For the farmers, it's an entirely different story.

At best, the outbreak can be controlled in a damage limitation effort (spraying with copper-based fungicides); at worst, entire plantations have to be replanted (in the 1860s, Sri Lanka dug up their coffee trees and replaced them with tea).

This is a catastrophe for coffee growers, forcing many families to diversify or change their crop. The big US companies are investing in developing new, resistant coffee plants but this will take years and won't serve the communities that are suffering due to this now.

Either way, the impact can be financially crippling and livelihoods can be lost; something which is happening right now in the Dominican Republic where the coffee and cacao industries make up nearly 40 percent of the agriculture sector's workforce and support around 45,000 families.

"This is a catastrophe for coffee growers, forcing many families to diversify or change their crop," Geldenhuys says. "The big US companies are investing in developing new, resistant coffee plants but this will take years and won't serve the communities that are suffering due to this now."

Suffering which isn't contained to the Dominican Republic.

Jason Sharp, CEO of Marley Coffee Jamaica Ltd (founded by Rohan Marley, son of Bob Marley) says coffee rust has been the "single most destructive disease to hit the Jamaican coffee industry in decades."

READ MORE: Coffee Beans Have Their Own Class System

Over the last three years, production fallout, tree mortality, and the cost-per-acre to treat and manage the disease have had near-cataclysmic effects.

"The initial impact was the most detrimental because of the lack of local knowledge of best practices for control of the disease," Sharp says. "However, over the last few years the industry has become more aware of the nature of the disease and how it manifests itself."

The introduction of new fungicides, he adds, has also helped with control of the disease despite the fact that these fungicides are not applicable to organic farms, like the Marley Farm in Skibo, Portland, which has had to rely on more traditional techniques of "good farm husbandry and a strong organic-nutrition program." As it is, the disease remains a critical problem for the Jamaican coffee farmer.

As for the Coffee Rave, Geldenhuys hopes the event will educate people about the issue. "I hope that the ravers savour our coffee that much more and reconsider how our daily luxuries affect the most basic needs of others so far away," she says. "It really is worth spending money on coffee brands that support their growers."