While roya means "dream" or "fantasy" in Persian, for many coffee farmers and thousands of workers in Central America, roya is a nightmare. The word means "rust" in Spanish, and is the term given to coffee rust, a plant fungus that attacks and destroys otherwise healthy coffee plants. This fungal infection is certainly nothing new, but it's been particularly devastating in the past two years and is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for many players in the worldwide coffee trade. But the real fall out is that the livelihoods of so many small coffee producers are being so urgently threatened. A succinct and intelligently told story about coffee rust on Monday's episode of NPR's Morning Edition, as shared on NPR's food blog The Salt, gives a lot of helpful info along with on-the-ground reporting. Listen to the five-minute spot here. The quotes from the Guatemalan farmer Edwin Fernando Diaz Viera are just absolutely heartbreaking.
For most of us, coffee is a wonderful little luxury. It adds a special quality to our day, a boost to our mood, and is a way to gather with friends that we would sorely miss if it somehow just disappeared. But for coffee farmers across the world, coffee is everything. According to this New York Times article from May, four million people across Central American and Southern Mexico rely on coffee to make a living. Four million. It's hard to wrap your mind around that. In terms of money changing hands, coffee is the most economically important agricultural product in international trade. Rather than bowing out of this global market, many farmers who've been affected by coffee rust take out loans to get them through the season, hoping that next season will be better, which must be terribly stressful.
Aside from money, growing plants and farming comes along with a certain amount of pride. Coffee rust is a parasitic fungus that first infects lower leaves on Arabica coffee tree with orange spots (thus its name) then works its way up, eventually choking the plant of nutrients, until it dies. It's a quick and brutal fungus that can wipe out entire mountainsides of coffee trees. Watching this deterioration take place is soul crushing for farmers. The NYTimes story mentioned above features a video, wherein another Guatemalan farmer named Luis Antonio describes how he cries over the death of his coffee plants, because he has such an intimate relationship with them. Watch the video here: http://nyti.ms/1fLA6Lo.
There are fungicides which helps to prevent the spread of roya, but they are expensive, and some farmers have reported that the rust attacked even with use of the fungicide. There are a few strains of genetically modified coffee trees which purport to be coffee-rust resistant, though many farmers and buyers believe that the coffee these plants produce are of inferior quality. Some farmers believe that shade-grown coffee is less likely to get the rust, because the shade trees help to protect the plants from dew, which may carry water-born coffee rust spores. But there is also a strategy to the contrary, which argues that coffee plants grown in full sun dry out faster and are less prone to infection. All this is to say that managing coffee rust is a complicated and uphill battle, even for farmers who know coffee farming inside and out.
Many coffee-centric organizations are mobilizing to help educate farmers on best practices to keep coffee rust away from their crops. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Starbucks have recently joined forces to create a $23 million fund to help coffee farmers in Latin America combat this epidemic (read more here). The Guatemalan government has a $100 million fund in place to provide farmers in its country with low-interest loans in an attempt to restore the health of this greatly important agricultural commodity. So there is hope, though many experts blame the strength and number of cases of coffee rust on climate change (high temperatures allow the fungus to spread to higher altitudes), which is surely an issue that's not going away any time soon.
At HubBub, we generally love to focus on the beauty and positivity that coffee brings to life. Love of coffee, and sharing it with you, is why we exist in the first place. But to love coffee - to truly understand it - is to look at the bigger picture, and recognize coffee's impact on a global scale. There is tons of research and writing about coffee rust already out there, and we've barely scratched the surface. But what we want to leave you with is this: the things happening to coffee farmers ripple through time and space and affect us, too. We're connected to them, and them to us, through this amazing plant, and it's so important to remember that.