Coffee Rust Threatens to Send Prices Sky-High

Worst outbreak in decades

May 19, 2014
Outside Magazine

The fungus in action.    Wikimedia Commons

Along with gasoline, reasonable coffee prices are one of the essential stabilizing forces in both our economy and mental well-being. That's what makes the fungus known as coffee rust, a blight that has already caused more than $1 billion in damage and threatens to exponentially raise the price of coffee, so darn scary.

The threat has become so severe that the U.S. Agency for International Development has decided to step in, partnering with Texas A&M University's World Coffee Research Center to find an effective countermeasure. "We are concerned because we know coffee rust is already causing massive amounts of devastation," said USAID head Raj Shah. Agency estimates place the potential drop in production as high as 40 percent, with as many as 500,000 jobs lost. Production dropped 20 percent in 2013 alone.

The rust, known as roya in Spanish, primarily attacks the Arabica coffee bean through an airborne fungal spore. It can be combated with fungicides and planting methods, but Central America's smaller farms often lack the resources to implement these measures. Much of America's mass-produced coffee comes from Asia, so for now only the high-end, specialty coffee producers are being affected, but that may not be the case for long.

The goal now is to develop a variety of coffee plant that is rust resistant, but it will take some time before the collaboration between USAID and Texas A&M bears fruit. According to Leonardo Lombardini of Texas A&M's World Coffee Research, "We don't see an end in sight anytime soon."