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What we can Learn From the Fight against Coffee Leaf Rust

By Jon Ferguson | March 23, 2020

Before the recent outbreak of COVID-19 began in the United States, I wrote a blog about some of the conditions that scientists have identified as underlying conditions for the  devastating toll coffee leaf rust brought in Central America, most recently in 2012.   I cannot help but reflect what many ecologists, plant pathologists, agroecologists, and even anthropologists have learned about why coffee rust spread rapidly and compare these underlying conditions and variables that are shared in helping control the further outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic we are facing today.  

It is a very unsettling time under what has been essentially a global lock-down response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The actions the global community has taken are unprecedented, driven primarily by the knowledge and unwavering advice of highly trained epidemiologists who are experts in the field of disease transmission across biological populations.  

In addition to epidemiologists, scientific experts across several fields of study have contributed to helping shift our cultural norms and actions in our day to day public interactions and behaviors.  Epidemiologists, agro-ecologists, anthropologists, and plant pathologists all share a similar holistic understanding of our world, and these significant cultural shifts in our habits are essential in controlling and preventing further outbreaks.  There is a growing list of recommendations and observations  that address how to control coffee rust, which similarly applies to the transmission of many biological forms (I.e., spores, viruses, etc.). 

  • Close proximity of plant spacing for optimal yield potential per square meter is a very similar concept to urban population densities, which is why social distancing and greater distance between coffee plants are recommended across most scientific communities when you are trying to curb disease transmission.  The challenge in implementing this change of plant distancing is that it will challenge the volume of yield per plot, which if implemented alone, would not provide a financial return.  But through intercropping diversified cash crops, high value trees, and other products may help curb the economic impact, and secure better food security for the long term.  
  • You only need a droplet of water for coffee rust to spread. Recommendations have included applications of fungicides, while also establishing wind barriers and other natural barriers to slow the transmission.  
  • Wind carries the spores. Without barriers, coffee rust spores will be carried greater distances.  The removal of forested areas allow for greater distances the wind carries coffee rust spores.  By creating forested areas, transmission is limited.   
  • Workers in the field that are pruning or harvesting coffee that has been infected with coffee rust will be transmitted across fields and communities by clinging to clothes, boots, and other tools used in the field. 
  • Social and political pressure:  Socio-economic goals often do not favor plant distancing or establishing ample buffer zones.  Some view it as a waste of time, money, and minimizes optimal output of coffee harvest. 
  • Technical Outreach:  Not only in coffee production, but within many farming communities there is a lack of trust in programs that promote specific agendas. All too often they can be misguided or implemented without fully understanding the community these programs serve.  It is well known that farmers work within highly complex ecological systems and economic forces, often pulling their decisions in opposite directions, creating a delicate balance for decision making daily.    

Read A Review on, Coffee Landscapes Shaping the Anthropocene (Part 1)

What can we learn from agroecologists and those who study the spread of coffee rust? What advice can we take from the experts that have been applied to both plant and human outbreaks?   Feel comfort in knowing that social distancing also applies to plants when it comes to curbing outbreaks. Hopefully in the future we can learn from our previous social and economic habits.  

Learn more our coffee at arborday.org/coffee.   

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