Coffee farm in Jamaica. Coffee leaf rust, drought and low prices are among the problems that growers face. (Photo: Zack Guido)
Institute of the Environment 2017

Roasting Coffee Leaf Rust with Climate Information

Monday, May 15, 2017

By Tessa Patterson, Institute of the Environment

For Alfred Edwards, a coffee grower from Penlyne Castle, Jamaica, coffee is not just a hot beverage that gets him out of bed in the mornings. It is a way of life.

With demand for this energy-fueled beverage pouring in from across the globe, Edwards said that “coffee farming brings in money, and money is what I need to support myself and my family.” It is this reality that makes Hemileia vastatrix, more commonly known as coffee leaf rust and ruinous to coffee plants, a threat to Edwards and his family’s well-being.

“Coffee leaf rust is one of the biggest problems that has ever faced coffee,” Edwards said. When he sees the blight, he added, “I think, ‘This is a total disaster.’… I feel angry, I feel sad, and I feel scared all in one.”

Now, University of Arizona researchers and a team of other scientists are brewing up a solution to help Edwards and other Jamaican coffee farmers stem the spread of the detrimental fungus and preserve their livelihoods.

Between December 2015 and April 2016, UA researcher Zack Guido and scientists at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society surveyed more than 450 Jamaican households in 22 major coffee-growing communities to gather information about their farms and growing challenges. The team found that growers are steeped in many more problems than just coffee rust.

“What we found was it wasn’t just coffee leaf rust, but coffee leaf rust, drought and low prices,” said Guido, a program manager for the International Research and Applications Project, a program funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Agency for International Development that is leading the research.

“These challenges are all interrelated,” Guido said. “Low prices can influence farmers’ investment in fertilizers and fungicides, which can make plants weaker and more susceptible to future rust and drought impacts.”

While all of these factors affect growers, Guido said improving access to climate-related information and training extension services may help farmers better manage their trees.

“There’s a big push across major coffee growing regions to better utilize information about the climate to allocate and manage limited resources,” said Guido. “If farmers knew that intense rain was forecasted in coming days, or if the chances of dry conditions in coming months were more likely, farmers could better time and plan their fertilizers and chemical applications. It’s not a sliver bullet, but it’s part of the risk management equation.”

The coffee rust fungus appears on the emerald-green leaves of coffee plants as a yellow powder and causes defoliation and reduced yields. It hit growers in the Caribbean and Central America particularly hard in 2012. Central America farmers had an estimated $345 million in losses in the 2012-13 harvest season alone, and world-famous Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee tallied losses of more than $1 million.

Conducting surveys and identifying the problem was the first phase of this three-part project. Next, with the help of the Jamaican Coffee Industry Board and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, the research team will launch forums that bring technical experts and farmers together to discuss how climate affects the crops of coffee growers and develop appropriate ways to connect information resources to communities.

Guido is hoping that the forums will empower growers by helping them build their knowledge about climate and help them make the association between climate information and efficient farming.

“We are not going to tell them that the conditions are 100 percent going to be dry or wet, and therefore you should do this or that in response,” Guido said. “We want to enable them to have access to new information and new knowledge while having the ability to decide if and how that information can help them.”

Guido says the forums also will provide the groundwork for further surveys.

“In these forums, we can help fortify what the growers learned from climate information, and it will lay the foundation for a subsequent round of household surveys on how involvement has affected the management of coffee,” Guido said.