Rust never sleeps, Neil Young asserted in 1979, and unfortunately the phrase never rang truer than it has with Latin American coffee farmers over the past two years. Since 2012, a deadly fungus called coffee rust has ravaged plantations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, leading to a 15 to 40 percent reduction in coffee yields in the region and a loss of anywhere from 400,000 to 500,000 jobs. The price tag on all this damage rings in at around $1 billion.
Coffee rust is not a new phenomenon—one anecdote posits that the damage it caused in Sri Lanka in the 1860s forced the country to choose tea as its national beverage instead—but it's new to Latin America, where climate change has allowed the fungus to thrive at elevations it previously couldn't reach. Once a plant is struck, it drops its leaves, stymying photosynthesis and stunting the development of the all-important coffee berries, the fruits that contain the coffee beans. While fungicide, pruning, and fertilization can all help stave off rust, most Latin American coffee farmers lack the capital to invest in such techniques—plus, since rust is new to their region, they're just not sure how to deal with it.
If you're not super picky about your daily caffeine dose, then you likely won't be affected by the crisis, which only strikes higher-quality arabica beans and, so far, is limited to Latin America and the Caribbean—the majority of coffee drinkers around the world sip on intensively-farmed commercial joe grown mostly in Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam. But if you're like me and favor pricey, crop-to-cup mélanges with names like "Timbers 1975 Blend—Limited Gift Edition," then you might wake up to the stark reality of much lower availability—and much higher prices—from your preferred roasters sooner than anyone wants to hear.
Learning this info is like accidentally swallowing chunky bits of gnarly coffee grinds, but it's not nearly as disturbing as what's happening to the people that actually grow the coffee. Coffee farming has long been a hugely important source of jobs and revenue in northern Latin America, where the beans account for nearly half of the regions's annual exports. Coffee pervades not just the countries' economies, but also their politics: When the coffee-growing going is good, it can help assure stability, but when it's bad, job loss can lead to hunger and poverty—which, in turn, can tip into violence and crime.
Such are the concerns of the United States Agency for International Development, which last month announced a $5 million initiative to combat the blight by researching rust-resistant coffee varieties and providing support to Latin American coffee institutions. The program, a collaboration with Texas A&M University's World Coffee Research, is just part of the $14 million USAID is pouring into coffee production in the region in an effort to secure jobs there and prevent the kind of social upheaval that officials believe could bleed over US borders in the form of an influx of illegal narcotics as a result of a possible increase in drug trafficking.
"The impact of a coffee shortage on the price of the average consumer's drink is an issue here, but the bigger picture is really how coffee rust has affected the livelihood of small farmers in Latin America," said Mark Sieffert, a program analyst for the coffee sector of USAID's Bureau of Food Security. "This is a region of the world where people are already living on $2 a day or less. The level of job loss we're seeing as a result of coffee rust has potential to lead to destabilization. And we don't want to see people who would otherwise be farming coffee resorting to alternate livelihood strategies."
The funding provided by USAID and Texas A&M will be used to develop rust-resistant seedlings as well as research how those seedlings will fare when grown in countries to which they're not native. Additional plans of attack—such as a fungicide-free strategy for organic growers—were laid out during the first annual Coffee Rust Summit that convened in Guatemala City in April. On the university's website, you can find links to the PowerPoint presentations from the conference, including one titled "Rust Never Sleeps." It's good to know that even the US government has a terribly corny sense of humor—or just really likes to rock out.