Coffee farmers discuss in February, 2015 the recent outbreaks of coffee leaf rust in the Jamaican Blue Mountains.
Institute of the Environment 2017

Taking a Splash of Climate Information with that Coffee

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

By Shahrazad Encinias, Institute of the Environment

Organish yellow molts produced by the coffee leaf rust fungus. It’s enough to give coffee farmers, buyers, and drinkers the jitters: a yellow powder that appears on the leaves of coffee plants, causing defoliation and reduced yields. The culprit, a fungal disease called Hemileia vastatrix, more commonly known as coffee leaf rust, cost Central American growers about $345 million in losses in the 2012–13 harvest season alone, and world-famous Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee calculated losses of more than $1 million.

Now, a team of scientists led by University of Arizona and Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) are steeped in an effort to document whether climate information and communication, tailored and reformulated to meet specific needs and circumstances, can help the Jamaican growers stem the spread of the disease and deliver their cups of joe.

“Coffee leaf rust hit livelihoods hard,” said Zack Guido of University of Arizona, a program manager for the International Research and Application Project, or IRAP, which is leading the research. “This project is looking at whether climate information can help improve the management of coffee leaf rust and whether we can quantify that.”

Coffee is one of Jamaica’s most important agricultural exports after sugar. The country exported more than $13.8 million dollars in coffee beans in 2012, according to the Jamaican Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.

After coffee leaf rust spread to Jamaica in 1986, growers used chemicals to keep it in check. Experts suspect that when coffee prices began to decrease several years ago, growers saved money by cutting back on chemical sprays and fertilizer. That left many plants more vulnerable to the fungus. In 2012, a particularly active year for coffee leaf rust, about 35 percent of the plants were affected.

The research team includes scientists from Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society and local partners like the Jamaican Coffee Industry Board, Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology, and the University of the West Indies at Mona. Representatives from each group met in Jamaica for three days in February 2015 to talk to farmers, agricultural extension services, and coffee buyers to learn more about the coffee leaf rust problem and potential management solutions.

“Climate information has the potential to help inform management decisions, but its application does not occur in a vacuum,” said Jim Buizer, director of the climate adaptation and international development program at the UA’s Institute of the Environment and a co-director of the IRAP project. “It is important to understand what farmers currently do to manage coffee leaf rust in order to get a better sense of how climate information can be helpful.”

Gusland McCook from the Jamaica Coffee Industry Board shows the current locations of meteorological stations in Jamaica. From the meetings in Jamaica, the team brewed up a three-part plan. First, the team will conduct surveys of about 600 households in 12 coffee farming communities and interviews with key members of the coffee supply chain to help better understand how people manage coffee leaf rust and the obstacles they experience. Insights from the surveys, interviews, and exploratory climate science research will help the research team hone in on the climate information that farmers can use.

Concurrently, the team is exploring the development of new seasonal forecasts and is gauging whether they help growers anticipate fertilizer or spraying needs. Fertilizer requires rain to deliver nutrients to the plants’ roots, and spraying is ineffective if rains wash the chemicals away.

“We’ll look at whether sub-seasonal climate information, including the frequency and timing of wet days, can help inform decisions about the management of coffee rust,” said Lisa Goddard, director of the IRI and co-director of the IRAP project. “This is a great opportunity to use cutting-edge science to help address real world problems.

The team also will analyze the historical record to better understand seasonal climate variability, including the onset of the rainy season and the frequency of dry spells, information that may be useful for the creation of more dynamic farming calendars.

Step two of the plan involves making sure the information is a good fit, which involves co-developing the information with the farmers and extension services.

“We will greatly help farmers in Jamaica manage coffee leaf rust if suitable climate information is provided in sufficient time for control practices to be performed,” said Elizabeth Johnson, representative for IICA in Jamaica.

Finally, the team plans to evaluate the impact of the climate information on coffee yields, networks, and other metrics that pinpoint the effect the co-developed climate information has had on managing coffee leaf rust.

An important aspect of the project, Guido said, is to integrate social and physical sciences in the co-creation of useable climate information and then be able to definitively say if the information made a difference.

“Applying climate information from multiple angles and evaluating its effect traditionally hasn’t been done in climate services,” he said.