A rusty nail in the coffin of organic-certified coffee?

by on June 4, 2013

Coffee leaf rust (Hemileia vastatrix) is a highly contagious fungal disease that is devastating coffee production in Latin America, with losses estimated at 15 to 70%, depending on the region. One essential component to combating this disease is the use of fungicides. Copper-based fungicides are relatively inexpensive and are permitted under organic certification. However, they must be reapplied frequently (around every three weeks, or more often if it rains and gets washed off) and are not without ecological risk. If used frequently or in excessive amounts, copper can build up in soils and can also be harmful to aquatic organisms. Some types of synthetic fungicides*, not allowable under organic certification,  can be more effective — and in some circumstances may actually be safer for the environment.

Some of the best reporting on the coffee rust crisis is from Michael Sheridan writing at CRS Coffeelands. As I was contemplating writing this post on the connection between coffee leaf rust and organic certification, Michael hit on the topic himself.  He notes that farm management [use of shade, planting density, pruning, proper timing of fungicide applications] has as much or more to do with crop losses from rust as does whether the farmer uses organic or conventional production; this was echoed in survey results gathered by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. The severity of this disease is also very dependent on climate and weather factors such as wind, moisture, and temperature. Still, Michael notes that the “official response to coffee rust in Central America so far seems to have been heavily skewed toward agrochemical-intensive approaches”.

For example, at a recent coffee rust summit, a representative from PROMECAFE, a Central American coordinator for coffee-related technical training, suggested that in the short term, organic farmers might consider leaving organic for conventional production.

nailCRS Coffeelands quotes Miguel Medina of the Guatamalan national coffee organization Anacafé as saying, “I don’t know how organic coffee can have a future.  There is nothing that works to control rust in the field and I am not seeing anyone in the market offering more to create additional incentives for organic farmers.”

Despite a strong commitment by farmers in many Latin American countries to preserve their environment and even a suspicion by a few that chemical companies may be behind the rust epidemic, many farmers may feel compelled to give up their organic certification to fight the rust. With the severity of this threat to their livelihoods — and even survival — the choice between trying to salvage their coffee trees with artificial fungicides or stick with organic certification is straightforward. Many will do what they can to keep afloat and give up organic certification. This not only allows them to use more potent artificial fungicides to try to control the coffee leaf rust, but it also frees them to use pesticides and artificial fertilizers that may be considered necessary to protect or help vulnerable or ailing coffee trees.

Over the past few years, some farmers have already abandoned organic certification because the extra money they receive for it simply does not compensate them for the added expense of producing coffee this way. The rust crisis adds to this dilemma. Eventually, coffee fields are likely to be replanted with rust-resistant varieties, but even those in the ground today will take three to five years to produce a crop. Meanwhile, we as consumers need to brace ourselves for higher coffee prices as crop yields decline, and be that much more willing to pay extra for organic coffee.

More reading on the topic:

*Some media mention “Triazaline” as the synthetic fungicide used for coffee leaf rust control. From what I can tell, there is no fungicide named triazaline. However, there is a group of synthetic fungicides called triazoles that are used. Triazaline may be a brand name in this family, or a misinterpretation/misspelling of triazole.

Rusty nail photo by Scott Robinson under a Creative Commons license.

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Revised on March 23, 2014

Posted in Certifications,Coffee and the environment,Coffee news and miscellany,Organic coffee

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael June 4, 2013 at 11:08 pm

Julie:

Hello from Colombia, where I spent the day on coffee farms in Nariño and saw plenty of rust.

Thanks for addressing this issue. I am glad to know the posts to the Coffeelands blog have been helpful.

I wanted to note that the “summary of major findings” that came out of the rust summit DID include language that recognizes the importance of organic farming and calls for investment in research and extension on effective organic control methods:

“Recognizing that organic farming is in many parts of Central America a reflection of a deep cultural commitment to ecological sustainability, and in all parts a source of important advantages in the marketplace, additional research into organic rust control methods is needed, as well as support for organic approaches proven to be effective. In the meantime, organic farmers should consider the use of copper sulfate based fungicides that are currently approved for certification by USDA and begin a progressive variety replacement program using a diverse mix of resistant material.”

For now, CRS is beginning to work with organic certifiers and researchers to identify and communicate effective approaches that narrow “the organic gap” in the official response to rust.

Michael

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JulieCraves June 5, 2013 at 7:05 am

Michael, as always, thanks for your work and for commenting here. It’s heartening to know that organic farmers are receiving attention, and I hope that we as consumers can really help them pull through this crisis (and continue to support them after that!).

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Tom July 7, 2013 at 6:25 pm

Should we be concerned about the unmeasurable amount of Agent Orange that coats Vietnam. Can anyone say that coffee beans grown there are safe for consumption? Has this issue ever been addressed?

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JulieCraves July 7, 2013 at 8:01 pm

As an ecologist, I have a healthy mistrust of the long-term effects of herbicides and pesticides. However, I think the threat of Agent Orange sprayed during the Vietnam war on current coffee crops is probably negligible, for the following reasons: 1) Most of the threat to humans is through direct skin contact and inhalation, 2) Typically even the types of chemicals and their break-down products found in herbicides like Agent Orange do not persist in soil for as many years (40+) as have passed since the spraying ended, 3) These chemicals were mostly sprayed in dense canopy areas, and likely did not reach the soil directly, 4) Usually once bound with the soil, the chemicals are not “bioavailable”, or able to be taken up by plants, and 5) Current coffee comes from trees that were planted long after the war. Even when pesticides are sprayed on coffee plants (although not herbicides, which obviously are designed to kill plants), little or none makes it to the coffee beans (seeds) themselves, and then do not survive processing and roasting. Disclaimer: I know a fair amount about the ecological impacts of herbicides on the market, I’m no expert on Agent Orange and its various formulations and contaminants.

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Tom July 11, 2013 at 11:54 am

Julie,

Thank you for your detailed response.

I will look for and try not to consume food products grown in Vietnam.

Thanks again.

Tom

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