The coffee industry has responded with shock and dismay to news that Lempira, previously thought to be a “rust-resistant” variety of coffee, has been infected with rust in Honduras.
Yet while producers have cause for alarm, Honduras is much better placed to respond to coffee leaf rust than it was in 2012, when the last epidemic hit.
Nelson Omar Funez, a Technical Manager at the Honduran national coffee institute, IHCAFE, agreed to speak to me about the situation in Honduras – including IHCAFE’s recommendations for coffee producers.
Spanish Version: ¿Cómo está Respondiendo Honduras al Reciente Brote de la Roya?
Coffee Leaf Rust: A Coffee Farmer’s Worst Fear
Coffee leaf rust, or la roya in Spanish, is an airborne fungal disease caused by Hemileia vastatrix. The infection is visible on the leaves of the coffee plant, appearing as yellow or orange spots. In the worst of cases, the leaves are unable to photosynthesize and the tree cannot create energy. The branches become bare of leaves and coffee cherries alike.
Coffee leaf rust is carried in water, rain, or air in the form of thousands of tiny spores. It can survive over long distances, which has helped its spread throughout the world.
In 2012, a coffee leaf rust epidemic struck Central American crops, causing over US $1 billion of damage in just two years (USAID). Even today, producers struggle to see the same yields as they did in 2010/11.
According to World Coffee Research (WCR), there are dozens of rust races that affect coffee globally. Most of these, however, have not been a significant issue in Central America – where races I and II have caused the greatest destruction of crops.
Some varieties of coffee are more vulnerable to coffee leaf rust than others. Yet while WCR ranks different varieties as “resistant”, “tolerant”, and “susceptible”, no variety is resistant to every race.
La roya has hit Central America hard over the past few years. Credit: Caffè Pecora 19 09
Rust-Resistant Varieties in Honduras
Nelson tells me that, of the two races most commonly found in Central America, race II is the most aggressive. This race is prevalent in most countries, he explains, and attacks all cultivated varieties of Arabica coffee that have not been genetically improved to show resistance to the pathogen. This means that Caturra, Catuai, Typica, Bourbon – they’re all susceptible to leaf rust.
After the 2012 leaf rust epidemic, many producers in Honduras replanted with rust-resistant varieties, such as Lempira, a cross between Timor Hybrid 832/1 and Caturra. And when we say rust-resistant, we of course mean resistant to race I and race II.
Nelson tells me that, in Honduras, 70% of the coffee crops were of a variety considered rust-resistant: Lempira, Parainema, IHCAFE 90…
And 60% of those resistant coffee varieties – 42% of Honduras’ total crops – are Lempira, Nelson tells me. This means the news that Lempira is no longer rust-resistant is extremely troubling for Honduran coffee producers.
Some coffee varieties are more vulnerable to coffee leaf rust than others. Credit: @ethyliswy
How Serious Is The New Outbreak of Leaf Rust?
Asterio Reyes, President of IHCAFE, confirmed in a press conference that coffee leaf rust now affects Lempira. While it first appeared in the department of El Campamento, it has now been identified in 50% of the coffee regions in Honduras. This new outbreak can develop in shorter cycles than before – as short as 15 days, according to Radio HRN.
It is as of yet unclear whether Honduras is facing a new race of coffee leaf rust, or if race I or race II has evolved. Yet Nelson believes we need to respond calmly and analytically. “Leaf rust is going to exist as long there’s coffee,” he says.
And there is also good news for Honduras. Asterio Reyes explained that 95% of the country’s coffee is produced by smallholder farmers with plots of five hectares or less. The small size of the farms makes it easier to control the outbreak. However, these smallholder farmers are also the ones that are the most vulnerable. They will find it harder to access the financing they need to take action.
Finally, Asterio Reyes said that the true damage of this new outbreak won’t be felt until the end of June, when the coffee harvest ends and the country can evaluate its losses.
A new race of coffee leaf rust could have reached Central America. Credit: Patrick Murray
A Quick Response
While this all seems like damning news for the Honduran coffee industry, the truth is that Honduras is well-positioned to respond to an outbreak of coffee leaf rust – and they’re already taking action.
During the 2012 epidemic, 30,000 coffee plots were affected by leaf rust infections, according to IHCAFE. The institute believes that avoiding similar devastation in future requires constant monitoring and preventative efforts. As of such, they have developed an early warning system. When coffee leaf rust surpasses 6% – as, in this instance, it has – the warning is activated.
The WCR website states that, “According to IHCAFE, as of April 2017, the incidence level of rust nationally was only 6% (below the level of economic damage). However, 18% of Lempira farms surveyed in March had an incidence level higher than 10%.”
This early warning of what are, as of yet, low levels of coffee leaf rust could help Honduras to contain much of the outbreak. Nelson tells me that the rainy season has just started. Since rain can carry coffee leaf rust spores, IHCAFE wishes to respond as quickly as possible.
IHCAFE are working on developing solutions to coffee leaf rust, informing producers of preventative actions, and supporting said producers as much as possible.
Education is key to prevention and control. Credit: Perfect Daily Grind
Practical Ways to Respond to Leaf Rust
Nelson tells me that it’s crucial producers constantly monitor their farm and implement the preventive protocols that IHCAFE recommends. “Prevention is cheaper than healing,” he says.
In particular, if their coffee farms have a coffee leaf incident rate greater than 5%, they should start using IHCAFE-approved fungicides. The institute also published a Spanish-language video giving advice to producers on how to respond to an infection. You can watch this here:
(Article continues below the video with more advice on tackling coffee leaf rust.)
Nelson also shares with me some further recommendations, ones that are useful not just for Honduran coffee producers, but for producing countries all around the world:
1. Constant monitoring: This new outbreak develops faster. While the behaviour of rust can vary from region to region, Nelson advises checking for it more frequently. In the past, a Honduran producer should have checked their farm every 30 days. Now, Nelson explains, they should do it twice a month – or more frequently.
2. Quality control and prevention programs: “We need to be prepared,” Nelson begins. Take stock of producing regions, remain aware of how prevalent coffee leaf rust is, and respond according to how the disease is behaving.
3. Motivation: Even though a coffee leaf rust outbreak is a difficult time, Nelson says that producers need to stay motivated. Creativity and proactivity will lead communities to new solutions.
4. Nutrition programs: Proper coffee nutrition will leave coffee plants better able to combat coffee leaf rust. Tissue management, or pruning, is also part of this.
What’s more, WCR, CATIE, and USAID have developed a Roya Prevention and Control Manual, which provides detailed recommendations for combatting coffee leaf rust on the farm.
Early detection of coffee leaf rust can help producers to take action. Credit: Lucía Hernández for S&D Coffee and Tea
Fighting Leaf Rust Together
Following these recommendations requires financing, training, and the ability to place technicians on coffee farms. This is something that the industry can do better when it works together.
Asterio Reyes has called on the entire Honduran coffee industry to support the more than 130,000 families that depend on coffee production. “Everything that needs to be done to face this situation is the responsibility of the coffee producers, coffee institutions, and the government, acting together as one body. This is the country’s issue.”
This message echoes one of IHCAFE’s two slogans: Todos contra La Roya, “everybody against leaf rust”. It is important we all – consumers and producers, coffee buyers and roasters – understand the severity of leaf rust.
Yet the outlook is far better than it was in 2011/12. Through the combined work of various organisations, the creation of new varieties and hybrids, and early detection and action, we stand a better chance of fighting against leaf rust.
Nelson tells me that IHCAFE’s second slogan is “Don’t change the coffee variety; change your attitude.” Giving up on Lempira and planting something new is not the only option – especially when replanting coffee is so expensive.
A proactive attitude, careful monitoring of crops, and the use of creative solutions are going to be key in facing the challenge of coffee leaf rust. It will be hard, but we have to remember one thing: a crisis doesn’t just give us the opportunity to innovate, but it truly pushes us to do so.
All interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English by the author. Featured photo: Lucía Hernández
Perfect Daily Grind
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