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The “big rust’s” impact on coffee disease management Coffee rust has made significant headlines in recent years for its devastating effect on coffee crops. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), losses in Latin America and the Caribbean alone have totaled well over $1 billion, causing hardship to coffee plantations, their labourers, coffee retailers, and the consumers who pay more for their morning coffee.
But this fungal disease, also known as “the big rust,” has a much longer and more encompassing history that goes all the way back to its discovery in 1869. This history is reviewed in detail through a new Phytopathology article entitled, “The Big Rust and the Red Queen: Long-Term Perspectives on Coffee Rust Research,” written by Stuart McCook, historian at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and John Vandermeer, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, USA.
In this essay, the authors discuss the big rust in a broader historical context, chronicling coffee rust epidemics, the social and ecological conditions that produced them, and the evolving scientific responses to this threat. The article highlights the many innovations used to combat coffee disease outbreaks, such as the efforts to develop disease-resistant plants, chemical and agroecological control, and even a network of international coffee research institutes. It also incorporates the broader social and economic histories of coffee production into particular stories of rust epidemics and rust research. The article also points out examples of the current research and disease mitigation challenges in developing nations versus affluent parts of the world.
By taking this broad perspective, the authors suggest we are entering a new phase in the global history of the coffee rust.
“Up until the mid-1980s, the story of the coffee rust was largely the story of invasions, as the disease spread into regions where it was not previously present,” McCook said. “By the mid-1980s, however, the disease had reached almost every coffee-producing region in the world.”
“For a brief while, in the 1980s and 1990s, it looked as if coffee farmers-with the help of scientists-had adapted to the disease, making it ‘just another disease’ on the farm. But we suggest that this fragile equilibrium has begun to break down, both because of broader ecological changes that we are only beginning to understand, and also because of increasing volatility in the global coffee economy,” he said.
Read this paper in the September 2015 issue of Phytopathology.
(Phytopathology News, November 2015)