Another Monocropping Casualty: Coffee

Ever since people figured out that coffee was a thing, they’ve been roasting it, grinding it, and brewing it — and experimenting with roasts, flavourings, and more. Some people take it black, others prefer it with milk and sugar — or soymilk and agave — maybe you like it Turkish style, or you prefer an espresso. Coffee is a huge international business, and it’s fueled, at its heart, by the people who grow it.

The vast majority of coffee cultivated worldwide is of the Arabica variety, which only grows well at high altitudes like those found at coffee plantations in Central and South America. Consumers tend to prefer it because it has a mellower, richer, more complex flavour when compared to low-altitude Robusta, which is used in less expensive coffees and blends. Coffee growing has become a huge source of income for farmers around the world, who rely on the crop to support themselves and their families, and to keep them out of the violence and poverty cycle.

Because coffee is a high-value crop, many farmers are turning to monocropping, producing coffee exclusively and growing Arabica specifically, often using clones and grafts. While this ensures a reliably-performing crop by selecting for plants known to be proven performers, it also makes farmers extremely vulnerable. As with the Cavendish banana, if a plant becomes vulnerable to an infectious organism, the whole crop could be wiped out, not just a single plant, thanks to the fact that the whole crop is identical.

That’s what’s happening with coffee rust fungus, or roya. Farmers, especially small farmers, are facing infestation with a fungus that’s ruining crops and forcing them to turn to alternate modes of income even as they try to protect what’s left of their coffee. In the short term, that’s driving coffee prices up — you can expect to see that reflected at the cup, even if you’re buying coffee produced on a large scale where manufacturers can control for costs somewhat by cutting in other areas. It’s also potentially contributing to political instability in Central and Southern America, because when your crops fail, you experience poverty.

You also experience hunger, and desperation, and these things can drive you to making moves you wouldn’t otherwise consider. Drug trafficking and violence can appear in communities devastated by crop failures and increased poverty, and the human development strides — increased access to education, food security, and more — made in the region could fall by the wayside if the fungus can’t be addressed swiftly enough.

The solution to coffee rust fungus is, global governments state, using fungicides to eradicate it. But it’s more complicated than that, and not just because very small farms can’t afford fungicides and they’re the most at risk of crop failures and economic fragility due to their size. Farmers also need to change their agricultural practices, turning away from monocropping to embrace more diverse plantings, which include not just coffee but other crops, and a diversity of coffees, not a single clonal planting. Farms with diverse coffee shrubs are much less prone to large-scale losses, because even if some of their plants succumb, others will survive, and their hardy genes can be used in breeding programmes to develop more hardy plants for future years.

It’s also important to protect coffee farmers. Fair trade coffee is becoming more and more common, with a growing social expectation in some communities that coffee farmers will be compensated fairly for their work. It’s critical that farmers get a fair and equitable rate for their beans, as they rely on this money to pay farmhands, manage the farm, and support their family members. Fair trade products can be more expensive, but the tradeoff is that the supply chain is cleaner and more ethical. If coffee prices are increasing already due to scarcity caused by coffee rust fungus, this is a good time to be discussing the imperative for fair trade coffee (as well as chocolate and other crops) to protect farmers and workers.

Liberal application of fungicides has potentially troubling applications as well, even if they’re effective at killing roya. Appropriate training and protective gear is required to use agricultural chemicals, and not all farmers have access to these tools, increasing the risk of human health problems associated with fungicide application, as industrial fungicides can cause skin and eye irritation among other problems. In addition, they can disturb the balance of flora and fauna in the farm’s soil, forcing farmers to use industrial fertilisers and other agricultural chemicals to stabilise the soil and continue getting high yields.

Runoff is also a concern, as fungicide can flow downhill and through the water table to contaminate the surrounding environment. This is a particularly large issue with agricultural contaminants coming from coffee farms, as they’re often situated in biologically diverse, unique, and very special areas: precisely the kinds of locales where you don’t want agricultural chemicals being pumped into waterways and sucked up into the root systems of plants, shrubs, and trees. Controlling chemicals is in fact critical in these environments, which can be very vulnerable to contamination.

The spread of coffee rust fungus is a cause for international concern not just because we’re worried about our coffee supplies or political stability, but because it represents a larger problem of monocropping and its consequences, compounded by climate change. As the climate shifts, so too do conditions on farms, creating new windows of opportunity for organisms that can tear through clonal crops and devastate harvests.

Image credit: Next year’s cup of coffee?, Doug Greenberg, Flickr.