Barista Magazine

FEB-MAR 2019

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F O A M : N E W S + T R E N D S WORLD COFFEE RESEARCH EXPANDS BEYOND GENETICS IN FIGHT AGAINST COFFEE-LEAF RUST Coffee-leaf rust is hardly a new problem for the global coffee industry. The airborne fungal disease, also known as la roya, has presented challenges for coffee producers worldwide since it was fi rst reported in 1865, including nearly erasing the coffee supply of Sri Lanka in the 1890s. However, since 2012—when the latest epidemic of coffee-leaf rust hit coffee producers in Latin America—the disease has been one of the most pressing challenges in the coffee world. The disease forced 1.7 million people out of work, increased human migration, and caused many farmers in the region to lose 50–80 percent of production. Coffee-leaf rust has been a main area of focus for World Coffee Research (WCR) since the organization's founding in 2012. World Coffee Research is a precom- petitive organization that works with (and is supported by) companies throughout the global coffee industry to grow, protect, and increase the supply of quality coffee while bettering the livelihoods of the families who pro- duce it. The organization's rust-related work has included supporting the development of improved coffee varieties that are proven to be tolerant of rust and other diseases. However, battling coffee-leaf rust is a complicated matter—as the disease has frequently adapted, so too have the strategies adopted to combat it. In May 2017, Honduran coffee institute IHCAFE confi rmed through genetic testing that Lempira, an improved coffee variety made by crossing the Timor Hybrid and Caturra varieties, had lost its resistance to rust. In September 2018, at the ASIC Conference in Portland, Ore., WCR announced to the industry that researchers think most of the current rust-resistant varieties will break down and lose their rust resistance—in many countries, this will happen in as soon as fi ve to 10 years. Dr. Christophe Montagnon, scientifi c director of World Coffee Re- search, says this breakdown is occurring because most of the current rust-resistant varieties are derived from the Timor Hybrid—a naturally occurring cross between Arabica and Robusta—and the Timor Hybrid is now losing its resistance to the disease. "Many scientists see the Timor Hybrid as a poison gift from nature," Dr. Montagnon says. "It provided the coffee scientifi c community with the important resistant genes needed to resist rust, but it helped to create the impression this resistance could last forever, and this was the only solution we'd need." In light of the varieties' resistance breaking down, the coffee scientifi c community—together with WCR—is shifting to a more comprehensive strategy. Genetic research will constitute one part of the strategy, but promoting strong plant health, agronomic management, and biological control will be other key elements. "We need to use all of the tools in our toolbox to be effi cient against rust," Dr. Montagnon says, "and genetic research is just one tool." WCR's efforts to promote plant health include spreading information to farmers, often through coffee-producing-country institutions, about the importance of good maintenance, soil conservation, and adequate plant nutrition and shading in maintaining strong coffee trees. Healthy plants are more able to fi ght off disease, and the 2012 rust epidemic was brought about at least in part by poorly maintained trees being susceptible to disease. Additionally, WCR is promoting the use of F1 hybrids, which are vigorous, improved coffee varieties that are shown to be higher in quality and yield, and more tolerant of disease, even when they aren't full resistant. One slightly more experimental approach World Coffee Research is ex- ploring to fi ght rust is biological control, which seeks to reunite coffee-leaf rust with some of the natural enemies—such as competitors, parasites, or predators—it may have encountered when it originated in Africa. In a partnership with the Federal University of V tions are surveying, collecting, and screening different microorganisms that either "eat" rust or protect coffee from rust infection, and setting up a trial to test their effi cacy. If successful, biological control could be repli- cated in farmers' fi elds as a useful organic method of fi ghting rust. Further, while genetic research may not be the sole focus of the revamped strategy against rust, it remains an important piece. Though rust-resistant varieties from the Timor Hybrid family have started to break down, breeding a new generation of disease-resistant plants draw- ing on new sources of resistance is still viewed as a necessary method of fi ghting rust. As such, WCR has partnered with the Crop Trust on an am- bitious project to safeguard wild coffee species that may contain potential resistant genes for future use. Additionally, the coffee scientifi c community believes that knowing more about coffee-leaf rust will allow it to better work against it. World Coffee Research recently launched a research project with Indiana's Purdue University that will seek to explore the rust genome and ge- netic diversity, understand its mutations, and more. "One of the goals of our project will be to annotate the coffee-leaf-rust genome," says Dr. Cathie Aime, a mycologist at Purdue who is leading the project, "which would be a useful tool for the global coffee industry to have in creating strategies to combat coffee-leaf rust." With a well-rounded strategy against coffee-leaf rust, Dr. Montagnon says, it's realistic to think that the coffee scientifi c community can help coffee farmers around the world coexist with the disease. "Coffee-leaf rust has been around for hundreds of years," Dr. Montagnon says. "It can't be wiped out, but it can be signifi cantly mitigated, and we can avoid epidem- ics. I believe that, by applying the wide range of solutions in our toolbox, we can help control rust to the point that farmers can live with it." —Chris Ryan As the specialty-coff ee industry continues to ba le coff ee-leaf rust, World Coff ee Research, along with the greater coff ee scientifi c community, is embracing a comprehensive strategy that looks beyond genetic research. One element of World Coff ee Research's plan for improving coff ee production and farmer livelihoods is the use of F1 hybrids—such as the Centroamericano variety shown here—which have shown to be more tolerant of diseases like coff ee-leaf rust. PHOTO BY BRAM DE HOOG 32 barista magazine

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