The Looming Coffee Crisis



A deadly disease is afflicting coffee plantations in Central America and the Caribbean, and – as a result – your morning cup of coffee may be destined for dramatic change.

Growing up in Jamaica, I remember the gros michel banana, a wonder of form and flavor unlike anything in today’s supermarkets. That’s just a memory today. Disease wiped it out and growers were obliged to turn to other hardier but far less appealing varieties.

Is that what’s ahead for that wonder of nature, Blue Mountain Coffee?

Sadly, it seems that such a calamity could be in the cards.

Coffee rust, also known as la roya, is wiping out the Caribbean basin’s coffee plants, the U.S. Agency for International Development warned Sunday. In just a couple of years, the plague has caused a billion dollars worth of damage, and USAID figures as many as 500,000 people, particularly small farmers and seasonal workers, are at risk of losing their livelihood.

In the short term, the blight is likely to mean skyrocketing coffee prices for consumers and dire economic hardship for coffee producers.

And in the long term, what?

USAID has announced a multimillion-dollar partnership with Texas A&M University and a wide ranging global alliance to combat the threat. Project partners include coffee research and development institutions from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Dominican Republic and Jamaica, as well as the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center, the Feed the Future initiative of USAID, the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development and the Federal University of Vicosa.

But it doesn’t look as if the researchers hope to save coffee as we know it. That seems to be too much of a challenge.

News reports state that the research will focus on “establishing an improved Central American coffee sector through plantation renovation with high quality, disease resistant coffee varieties and a constant pipeline of newer, higher performing varieties.”

So the coffee industry might survive. The coffee market might survive. Powerful agricultural interests might continue to make money (lots of it, of course) and some could even trickle down to the small growers and the workers in the field (pictured above).

But the familiar aroma and flavor that make that cup of coffee such a rare delight? Those could well be destined for the history books. When the scientists and market researchers get their hands on agricultural products, it’s the bottom line that rules.It’s the yield per acre, the resistance to pests, the eye appeal, and so on.

Tomatoes get firmer and redder. Grains of corn become uniform in shape and size. Produce is easier to pick and pack, easier to ship, harder to bruise.

And the taste?

Apparently, that doesn’t matter so much. Look at what they’ve done to the banana.

Click to read about the blight.

Click for more on the evolution of the banana.

Click for climate change’s contribution.