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Disease Outbreak Threatens the Future of Good Coffee 259

Posted by Soulskill
from the spice-must-flow dept.
Wired reports on a disease infecting coffee plants across Central America that could lead to shortages around the world. "Regional production fell by 15 percent last year, putting nearly 400,000 people out of work, and that’s just a taste of what’s to come. The next harvest season begins in October, and according to the International Coffee Organization, crop losses could hit 50 percent." The disease is called coffee rust, and it has been damaging crops to some degree since the 1800s. It's not known yet exactly why coffee rust has become such a problem now, but one of the leading suspects is climate change. "Since the mid-20th century, though, weather patterns in Central America and northern South America have shifted. Average temperatures are warmer across the region, with extremes of both heat and cold becoming more pronounced; so are extreme rainfall events." The fungus that causes coffee rust thrives on warm, humid air, and higher temperatures have allowed it to climb to higher altitudes than ever before. But another likely cause is the way in which coffee is planted and harvested these days: the plants evolved as shade-dwellers, but are now often placed in direct sunlight. They're also clustered closer together, which facilitates the spread of disease. "The integrity of this once-complicated ecosystem has been slowly breaking down, which is what happens when you try to grow coffee like corn."
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Disease Outbreak Threatens the Future of Good Coffee

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  • This can't be happening!

    • Re:No.... (Score:5, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 12, 2013 @12:14AM (#43981719)

      Yet another problem with java.

    • by thsths (31372)

      And it isn't. Because quality coffee is grown in Africa, especially the Kenyan highlands. Whatever they do in middle America has little impact on quality coffee.

      • Re:No.... (Score:5, Informative)

        by DrSkwid (118965) on Wednesday June 12, 2013 @03:20AM (#43982477) Homepage Journal

        Top Ten Green Coffee Producers - 2009 (millions of metric tons)
          Brazil 2.44
          Vietnam 1.18
          Colombia 0.89
          Indonesia 0.70
          India 0.29
          Ethiopia 0.27
          Peru 0.26
          Mexico 0.25
          Guatemala 0.25
          Honduras 0.21
        -----------------
        World Total 7.80

      • by jpate (1356395)
        did you just confuse "central america" with "middle america"?
        • "Middle America" or "Mesoamerica" is a common term for that region, especially in academic circles.
  • I don't drink coffee (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sjwt (161428) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @10:06PM (#43981009)

    "The integrity of this once-complicated ecosystem has been slowly breaking down, which is what happens when you try to grow coffee like corn."

    So long as we don't try and grow corn like corn, I'm happy, I love my popcorn!

    Perhaps the issue is not climate change, but rather some evolution of the coffee rust..

    • by postbigbang (761081) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @10:09PM (#43981021)

      Monsanto Coffee. A new Starbucks option. Kills the rust. Only problem: turns coffee blue.

      • by c0lo (1497653)

        Monsanto Coffee. A new Starbucks option. Kills the rust. Only problem: turns the drinker cyanotic.

        FTFY

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by boundary (1226600)
        What, pray tell, does Starbucks have to do with good coffee?
        • by GNious (953874)

          I'm mostly confused that there apparently is such a thing as "good coffee"...

          • by RulerOf (975607)

            I'm mostly confused that there apparently is such a thing as "good coffee"...

            It's like "good beer." Some people just don't like it in general; it takes a really, really good one to be able to enjoy it, and that can depend on something as fickle as "I have a strange taste for $_specific_food."

      • Monsanto Coffee. A new Starbucks option. Kills the rust. Only problem: turns coffee blue.

        Why is that a problem? Be a 21th century hipster and tell the curious passers-by that you're drinking Romulan ale!

    • by manu0601 (2221348)
      It may be both: evolution of the coffee rust driven by climate change.
      • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @11:37PM (#43981539)

        It may be both: evolution of the coffee rust driven by climate change.

        Or it could be a lack of genetic diversity in the coffee trees. The fungus can spread through vast plantations of genetically similar arabica trees. The reason the rust has difficulty infecting wild trees may be because of their diversity, as well as their dispersion.

        Disclaimer: I am a tea drinker.

        • It may be both: evolution of the coffee rust driven by climate change.

          Or it could be a lack of genetic diversity in the coffee trees. The fungus can spread through vast plantations of genetically similar arabica trees. The reason the rust has difficulty infecting wild trees may be because of their diversity, as well as their dispersion.

          Disclaimer: I am a tea drinker.

          There are 2 ways to grow coffee. You can clear land and plant trees industrial-fashion, which is very efficient - and more likely to expose you to mass infections. Or you can plant the trees in a habitat approximating their wild state, where the coffee trees are interspersed with non-coffee trees and grow shaded. One is efficient and makes for cheaper coffee. The other is not so efficient, but the quality of the coffee is a lot better. It's also likely to slow down propagation of epidemic infections, since

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @10:32PM (#43981185)

      Actually, as someone whose family has owned coffee farms for over 100 years let me clue you in.

      Traditional coffee plants can last 20 years, they grow tall, shade the ground, and drop the leaves to fertilize the soil, have root systems that keep the soil in place, since coffee is grown in steppes.

      However, they are hybribs created in Brazil, that grow faster, less root systems, but need constant fertilization, and the root systems are shallow, causing run off of the soil, lower quality bean, But they produce like hell. But the constant fertilization they need ruins the land.

      They are also highly susceptible to root rust.

      It is not so much the climate change, but the mass production from genetically manipulated plants.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Same here. Mt Dew for the win!!

    • by amiga3D (567632) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @10:43PM (#43981245)

      They should have listened to Juan Valdez. He's the fucking expert.

    • by JMJimmy (2036122) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @10:55PM (#43981329)

      The thing with rust is that it goes in waves - people were freaking out over the rust sweeping through the evergreen population in Ontario and for a while it was bad, but then nature sorted it out and it's still present but not everywhere/killing all the trees like it was.
       

    • by Molochi (555357)

      From TFA,

      "Nobody knows precisely why the outbreak reached such extraordinary levels this year, though several factors are implicated. The most prominent is climate: In the past, environmental conditions at high Central American altitudes were not especially conducive to the fungus, which requires warm, humid air to thrive, said coffee rust specialist Cathy Aime of Purdue University."

      Fungus doesn't need to evolve to strive if the local climate changes to accommodate it.

    • by JaredOfEuropa (526365) on Wednesday June 12, 2013 @06:24AM (#43983169) Journal
      Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by global warming.
    • "The integrity of this once-complicated ecosystem has been slowly breaking down, which is what happens when you try to grow coffee like corn."
      This sentence is wrong in so many ways. Coffee is an old world plant, originally from Africa. Dutch took it to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and planted it (on the way to Indonesia). It was there that Rust started infecting Coffee plants and this started in the early 1900s or before.
      Later on Robusta was discovered as a plant that was resistant to rust and fruits faster
  • Seriously? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Why does every problem we face today come back to global warming? Oh wait, that is not the correct buzz word, because the planet is actually cooling, not getting warmer... I'm sorry, I meant "climate change".

  • by Andrio (2580551) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @10:16PM (#43981075)
    Finally, something to unify all Americans against climate change. Democrat or republican, poor or rich... It doesn't matter. We'll all stand together to stop this evil!
    • by 0111 1110 (518466) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @10:50PM (#43981287)

      I refuse to believe that change is bad. Change is the one thing in life that we can depend on. Our constant companion. I embrace change of any kind. Besides I prefer Mormon Tea to coffee. As long as Ma Huang is not affected I will continue to bask in the warmth of the ever changing climate.

      • I once thought as you. Then I plotted all the changes of the world that I could. After marveling at the cycles in the energies of life, I forced myself to take a step back and plot the general reduction in the diversity of life over time. I will not do this for you, because your sanity is valuable to me. In short, there is a dead-line by which sentient AI must be born in order to carry the human spirit of exploration and science onward.

        First they came for the Coffee Tree, but I did nothing, because I

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        I refuse to believe that change is bad.

        When you change from living to dead because you can't get water, your estimation will revise from refusing to believe to being unable to believe.

    • by MachineShedFred (621896) on Wednesday June 12, 2013 @08:00AM (#43983583) Journal

      Now only if anything in the article actually led to the conclusion that climate change has anything to do with the increased spread of this disease, rather than massive plantations of a monoculture of genetically near-identical plants.

      But yeah, I'm sure it's climate change that's causing it.

  • http://worldfamousdesignjunkies.com/food/rare-near-extinct-fine-chocolate-rediscovered-in-peru/ [worldfamou...unkies.com]

    "Pure Nacional, with its complex fruit and floral flavors, once dominated the fine chocolate market worldwide. In 1916, diseases struck the Pure Nacional population in Ecuador and within three years 95% of the trees were destroyed. The prized chocolate was thought to be lost, until now."

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @11:24PM (#43981493)

      The banana that many of us (at least those of us over a certain age) grew up snacking on now is extinct. As a result of a banana monoculture and an ever-mutating fungus, the Gros Michael variety of banana is no more.

      Without the public noticing, around 1960 the Gros Michael disappeared and Chiquita (aka United Brands) replaced it with the much less tasty Cavendish variety. Well, actually banana eaters did notice that bananas had suddenly gotten less snackable but nobody gave a reason or acknowledged that anything was wrong. Eventually people came to accept the Cavendish while still thinking that bananas weren't as good as they used to be.

      And now the Cavendish banana is going the same way as the Gros Michael thanks to the same monoculture farming technique. And there may not be a replacement.

      • by khallow (566160)

        And now the Cavendish banana is going the same way as the Gros Michael thanks to the same monoculture farming technique. And there may not be a replacement.

        Except for the next monoculture varieties that they come up with. It's just not that hard. They could also switch back to the Gros Michael. It's still around.

      • by TheLink (130905) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @11:52PM (#43981619) Journal

        I wouldn't care if the Cavendish goes extinct (along with the farms that grow it), as you said it's near tasteless - a good potato is even tastier. Perhaps it's only good as an edible stage prop - more photogenic.

        Plenty of other tastier banana breeds available and strangely many seem cheaper than the Cavendish in my country. So all that monoculture etc doesn't actually make it cheaper to me - maybe it makes it more profitable to the ones selling it?

        Example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lady_Finger_banana [wikipedia.org]
        For more see: http://www.agroforestry.net/tti/Banana-plantain-overview.pdf [agroforestry.net]

        • by broward (416376)

          GMO!
          GMO!

          • by dbIII (701233)
            Funny thing is the best example of GMO I've heard of was a project to deliver vaccines via banana. No refrigeration required, long shelf life, easy to ship and the dose is delivered by eating chunks of banana instead of injections. The GMO backlash meant the rules changed so that only someone as big as Monsanto can afford to comply with the regulations, so that killed the banana vaccines just as dead as the Nigerian dwarf spider goats.
      • by garyebickford (222422) <gar37bic AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday June 12, 2013 @12:07AM (#43981677)

        A couple of notes - it's "Gros Michel", and you're right, by all accounts it was a much tastier banana - more fruity. Cavendish is so unfruity it might as well be a grain. All Cavendish plants worldwide are clones - identical plants. Cavendish, like Navel Oranges, produce no seeds. The impact of this change was huge - Cavendish bananas are extremely sensitive to bruising so an entire new bush-to-ship-to-distributor-to-store system had to be developed, that protected the bananas from any stress. The bananas had to be shipped in clusters. The ships were even different.

        But there are 700 other species of banana. There are at least two major research thrusts - genetic engineering (trying to engineer a resistant version), and selective breeding & hybridization (trying to breed a new banana by cross breeding existing plants with desirable characteristics). IMHO it would be at least as effective to just provide a wider range of bananas in the store at a reasonable price - so far all the alternatives have been 2X or 3X the price of Cavendish.

        A company I'm looking at is also working on an epigenetic solution - exposing the undifferentiated stem cells to stresses that will hopefully encourage the banana plants to express their genes differently, including genes that provide resistance.

      • Wikipedia claims

        "In the 1950s the Panama disease, a wilt caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum, wiped out vast tracts of ‘Gros Michel’ plantations in South America and Africa, but the cultivar survived in Thailand."

        I know wikipedia can be manipulated but still I trust is more than an anonymous coward on /.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    So from the fine article it appears that the spread of coffee rust could have something to do with the changes in cultivation practices. Or we could get climate alarmists all excited by blaming climate change. Reading carefully, it's clear that cultivation practices have a lot to do with the rust outbreak. But we can get climate alarmists all excited by blaming climate change. Woo!

  • by khallow (566160) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @10:53PM (#43981307)

    It's not known yet exactly why coffee rust has become such a problem now, but one of the leading suspects is climate change.

    Here's another eye-rolling moment from the chicken littles who can't be bothered to decide what climate change is. From the article,

    âoeThereâ(TM)s increasing evidence that climate change is part of the problem. You find coffee rust striking much farther up the valleys than it used to. Thereâ(TM)s no other plausible explanation,â Baker said. âoeBut what happened last year, and why it was so aggressive and widespread, weâ(TM)re still a bit [perplexed]. And if we donâ(TM)t really know what caused it, itâ(TM)s going to be hard to predict.â

    Another plausible explanation, especially given the more virulent nature of this coffee rust problem, is that it has evolved or a new strain has moved in. That wasn't hard. Note that the researcher is confident that "climate change" is involved, but far less confident that biology is involved.

    This is a researcher in the field making these claims not some ignorant Wired writer. I see this as further evidence that climatology has been taken over by political forces. A scientist makes an overly confident claim about "climate change" and it gets readily and uncritically reported by a high profile news source. And the take away that the reader gets is that their coffee is threatened by climate change. That's a classic propaganda move.

  • by DaveAtFraud (460127) on Tuesday June 11, 2013 @11:10PM (#43981429) Homepage Journal

    Millions of people roaming the earth in a state that is neither alive nor dead. All in search of caffeine; not brains.

    Cheers,
    Dave

  • As the article points out, I'm wondering if farming techniques and the propensity to have homogenous crops are more to blame than climate change. True, temperature rises means that plants at various elevations are more susceptible to the disease, but the spread seems, in my opinion, to be more related to plants that are close together and of the same genetic variety. Its possible that if they spread things out and plant different variants that the problem wouldn't be as pronounced.

    Of course, without coffee

  • by no-body (127863)
    Growing coffee in the current industrialized fashion (not organic growers) makes heavy use of fung/pesticides. Cofee beans after harvested and spread out to dry are sprayed daily with fungicides.

    Maybe, just maybe the undesired organisms are getting adapted to the poisons, survive and hamper production?

    It's big business for the chemical industry selling all that poison....
  • ... and now I know that I won't be effected.
  • Yes, dear friends, soon heavy industry will make it possible for everyone to have their own coffee!

    Monsanto wouldn't have it any other way.

  • No coffee in the alternate universe, universe full of very angry people. Coincidence?
  • Global warming, redressed as climate change, is a scam perpetuated by grant seeking academics, non-profits and scientists. The reference to it in this article typifies a method of when-you-don't-know-the-reason point blame to climate change. Then at least your research grants have a chance of getting funded.

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