Remember the Gros Michel banana? If you’re under the age of seventy, you probably don’t. That’s because in the 1950s a fungal disease called Panama disease essentially wiped out commercial production of the Gros Michel. In just a few years, growers were forced to switch from the rich, creamy, and physically hearty Gros Michel to the bland, easily bruised, “junk” cultivar of banana we’re familiar with today: the Cavendish.
Now, the same fate that befell the banana could swallow up the most popular drink in the world: coffee.
Between 60 and 65% of the coffee produced in the world is produced from the Arabica plant, with the more bitter Robusta variety making up almost all of the rest. While vastly inferior in taste and often relegated to instant coffee swill, Robusta is undeniably more robust to produce, yielding 60% more beans at a greater growing temperature range while resisting insects and disease, including the dreaded coffee rust.
It is coffee rust that now threatens the global supply of Arabica. As Chemical and Engineering News recently reported, roughly 15 percent of production is lost to rust each year and it affects crops worldwide. Forty percent of Colombia’s coffee crop was wiped out by rust in 2008 alone, destroying livelihoods and impoverishing families in the process. Considering that Arabica is basically inbred, with just 1.2 percent genetic diversity, there is little chance it will ever develop resistance. Conventional breeding efforts are underway to create a more resilient version of Arabica, and have been for fifty years, but they probably won’t be able to keep up with coffee rust forever, especially considering the disease’s effects and scope are exacerbated by climate change, which is producing hotter, more humid conditions in prime growing areas – perfect for fungus. Fungicides and strategic growing practices help, but they are imperfect solutions which are difficult to implement on a wide scale. Read more