Columbians Are Fighting ‘Coffee Rust’ Daily To Save A Global Staple.
The start of most people’s workday or just mornings, in general, is coffee and according to Columbia, there may be a problem. Before you start stocking up Columbia is not the only global distributor and is actually the third largest producer trailing behind Vietnam (2nd) and Brazil (1st). This is still a big issue if Columbia were to stop production everyone would feel the change in the price tag for coffee.
The Coffee Killer is called “Coffee Rust.” Coffee Rust is a plant disease that could wipe out the Coffee plant entirely if it were not for scientists in laboratories working on ways to eradicate the disease. Coffee Rust is a fungus that causes the leaves to become frail and prevents the production of the coffee cherries. The coffee beans we know and love are actually very similar to cherry pits.
Farmers right now combat Coffee Rust using various pesticides but if left unchecked the results can be devastating. The British relied on Coffee imported from their colonies in the 19th century. When Coffee Rust struck it hit the crop so thoroughly that the British switched over to tea due to scarcity.
Coffee Rust is by no means a new problem, it’s more of an ongoing battle that wages on for all coffee growers. Columbia’s big issue stems from the two types of coffee they produce and how their better-selling coffee bean (Coffea arabica) is more affected by the fungus than their cheaper variety (robusta).
Scientists have done their best to create pesticides and even created new strains of coffee that are more resistant to Coffee Rust. But like any normal disease, Coffee Rust evolves and scientists warn that it is only a matter of time until Coffee Rust evolves to a point where Tea might become the go-to morning beverage.
To get to Cenicafe, you have to drive all the way to the top of a mountain; the twisting roads can make you sick if you are not used to them. The lab is nested there to keep its 89-year-worth body of research away from the force of nature: the prior building flooded after a volcano eruption in 1985.
It was set up by the Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers (also known as Fedecafe), the coffee industry association in the country, and is considered a global flagship centre for the science of coffee.
“Cenicafe is what have allowed us to remain competitive and lower our risk”, explains Hernando Duque, technical director of Fedecafe. Its research helped domesticate and make viable many of the high-quality varieties that the country grows and the world enjoys.
Today, the laboratory’s work is regarded as the gold standard in the fight against “the most acute threat against coffee in the Americas”, says Michael Sheridan, director of sourcing and shared value at Intelligentsia Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee importer in the US.
To save Colombia’s coffee, Cenicafe scientists in the 1960s realized that they needed to breed new varieties that could inherit both the distinctive taste and aroma of Colombian ‘beauty’, and the resistance genes of the ‘beast’.
To do so, they had to get those genes somewhere: ‘the beauty’ and ‘the beast’ don’t usually interbreed.
The solution, they found, would come from the other side of the world.
From Timor with love
At some point in recent history, something weird happened in Timor. Somewhere in this small island on the Indian Ocean, halfway between Indonesia and Australia, the ‘beauty’ and the ‘beast’ had an affair of sorts. As a result, the Timor hybrid was born.
The ‘beauty’ and the ‘beast’ had an affair of sorts. As a result, the Timor hybrid was born
This naturally occurring hybrid of arabica and robusta was found in 1927 and started to be harvested in 1940. It is not really a great tasting berry, but it had a crucial feature: unlike normal robusta, it can be bred again with arabica varieties, which means that it can transmit its rust resistance to them.
Coffee research centres around the world started to do just that, but there was a problem. The result did not taste very good, what meant that it was going to fail. If cultivators were not going to be paid at least as much money for the new varieties, they simply were not going to change their bushes.
Colombia’s coffee industry employs around 730,000 people, most of them in the deprived rural areas of the country.
Cenicafe began its efforts to combat rust begun in 1968, knowing that rust from overseas would arrive in Colombia soon. It started a project to create cultivars of the bush that resist it. It was not just a matter of putting two varieties in a genetic blender. The real work was to interbreed five generations of trees and select those that provided a better taste and more delicate aroma, as well as a shorter tree, good productivity for growers and resistant to different races of the Hemileia fungus.
In 1980, the centre released its first hybrid of Caturra – the dominant variety grown in the country – and the Timor hybrid. It was called Colombia, and it was good enough for it to be well accepted by growers and buyers, to the point that it still is around in many of the country’s coffee farms.
It was just in time. Three years later, coffee rust was first identified in Colombia.