Coffee is a weather-dependent crop, which means that the variance in rainfall can take an enormous toll on the plants. Over the last six years, the fungus that causes rust has destroyed a significant number of coffee trees, and experts say that over 40% of coffee crops in Central America could soon be lost.
The rust that accumulates on the leaves of coffee trees has a multifaceted effect on the plant. Ultimately, by shielding its leaves from sunlight, the fungus prevents photosynthesis, gradually weakening the plant until it dies off. Experts have pinpointed climate variation—dramatic changes in weather and rainfall in the region—as the central cause for the sudden outbreak in the destructive rust. The report put together by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted continued downpours resulting from shifts in El Nino and La Nina, meaning that the coffee-killing rust will become even worse in the near future.
Potential losses to the coffee industry in Central America could have widespread economical effects, as the crop is a primary export for many countries in the region.
The rust phenomenon is not without precedent. In 2008, Colombia’s coffee output was nearly cut in half, severely damaging the country’s economy. Interestingly, one proposed solution to the problem of rust is the bioengineering of new seeds that can withstand the effects of the fungus. Researchers are working diligently to create the coffee seeds of the future.