Barista Magazine

APR-MAR 2014

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Page 78 of 107

BY NOW, WE'RE ALL TOO FAMILIAR with the story. Some climatic variation outside the norm, slightly warmer temperatures, and then more rain either in volume or timing than typical, and almost overnight—coffee leaf rust, or roya, appears. Rust, a fungus, thrives in warmer and wetter condi- tions. Spreading quickly as spores travel on the wind, within raindrops, or from one picker's clothes to another, rust infects farm after farm after farm, until suddenly an entire country finds nearly 40 percent of its plants affected. The farmers who depend on those plant for their livelihoods are devistated by the massive losses to production. But this story isn't pulled from the news in 2013, and it's not the farms of Central America facing the attack. Instead, this was the scene on the ground in Colombia in 2010. Just four years later, less than 3 percent of coffee farms in Colombia are infected with rust, however—a dramatic turn- around, and one that should give hope to those struggling with rust now, as well as those who will face it in the future. The story of how Colombia was able to overcome the advances of the disease is one of foresight, planning, and ultimately necessity. The Colombian effort to stop rust began before the dis- ease ever reached the country. The first incidences of rust in Latin America were recorded in 1970 in Brazil. How the fungus—which, like coffee, is native to Africa—reached South America is still up for debate. It could have come via spores carried accidently by humans, or naturally by the wind, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. When the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) first received reports of rust affecting American coffee, the organization immediately called upon its research arm, the National Coffee Research Center, or Cenicafé, to come up with a response plan. Cenicafé was established by the FNC in 1937, and, according to Dr. Néstor Riaño, coordinator of the Climate Change and Coffee Growing Program, "sustainability was its founding prin- ciple, looking out for the next generation." That meant being prepared in advance to respond to biological threats against the coffee industry, such as the coffee borer, coffee berry disease, and rust, even though it hadn't yet reached Colombia. In 1965, Cenicafé started building a genetic library of cof- fee plants, and following the rust reports from Brazil, the FNC decided on a strategy to breed rust-resistant plants. This started by taking a naturally resistant strain called the Timor Hybrid and crossing it with Caturra. The result was the Colombia variety. It was released in 1980, and the FNC began distributing seeds to farmers in 1983. For nearly 15 years, researchers at Cenicafé worked on devel- oping the Colombia variety. As Dr. Álvaro Gaitán, a plant-dis- ease pathologist at Cenicafé, says, "Everything in coffee takes time." To make a stable, high-producing coffee variety requires multiple successive generations of plants. You have to start with what's called an F1 level, the initial generation, and work all the way to an F5; at each generation, it's necessary to reselect for ideal characteristics. In the second generation, for example, you may have a rust-resistant variety, but some of its plants might grow to be 10-feet tall while others are only three feet; or some plants may have high yields and others from the same lot have low yields, making the variety unusable for cultivation. Each generation of plants takes years to develop to maturity, making the research process a lengthy one. Scientists need the plants to mature in order to see the amount of production, as well as the cup quality. At each F-level, then, as the cross- breeding continues, the number of positive characteristics in the plant ought to increase while the negative ones decrease as the variety becomes more and more refined. At an F5 stage, the researchers know all of the distributed seeds will produce plants with the characteristics needed to make it worthy of cultivation. In 1985, coffee rust reached Colombia. The foresight of the FNC meant that a rust-resistant variety was available in time, if only barely. Adoption of the Colombia variety was slow, but as producers weighed the pros and cons, research was already underway on another rust-resistant variety. "We didn't have rust in America for 200 years," says Dr. Gaitán. Then it showed up in Brazil. "We don't know how, but we know that when it reached Ceylon [now Sri Lanka] in the late 1800s, it destroyed the entire production within 20 years." When the disease reached Colombia in the mid-1980s, farms at low levels were most affected. "Plantations under a certain altitude ceased to exist, pressured by the disease," Dr. Gaitán continues. But farms at higher elevations didn't have any prob- lems, leading again to a lower adoption rate of the Colombia variety. "Why bother?" was the attitude of many producers. Their Caturras and Bourbons were doing great, unaffected by the disease, and at elevations of 1,600 meters or higher, rust was unheard of. Coffee rust thrives in a specific temperature range: 16–28˚ Celsius. The temperatures at those higher elevations The truth of the matter is that rust is not the problem facing Colombian coffee growers, or Central American ones. Rust is just a symptom. The real challenge is much, much greater: it's climate change, and its impact requires an even larger strategic response. 79 B o o k 5 5 - 8 8 . i n d d 7 9 Book 55-88.indd 79 3 / 1 9 / 1 4 1 0 : 0 9 P M 3/19/14 10:09 PM

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