‘Leaf Rust’ Drives Coffee into Crisis

By Michael Sheridan

Just over 10 years ago, the global coffee market collapsed. The prices farmers earned for their coffee fell to their lowest levels in a generation – less than $0.50 per pound. Sometimes much less. Coffee-growing families saw their incomes halved overnight (or worse) due to market forces beyond their control. Farmers struggled to feed their families. Some gave up on coffee. Others gave up on farming altogether and migrated in search of work. The impacts of the price collapse were so severe that the episode became known simply as “the coffee crisis.”

CRS responded to the coffee crisis in the communities where farmers grow coffee overseas and the communities where they drink it in the United States. In Nicaragua, CRS mounted a humanitarian response to help coffee growers feed their families and stay on their farms. In the United States, CRS launched its Fair Trade Coffee Project to enlist U.S. Catholics in the effort to support small-scale family farmers through the purchase of Fair Trade coffee. For more than 10 years, CRS has worked to create new and improved opportunities for the family farmers who grow our coffee through programming in coffee communities overseas and the promotion of Fair Trade and sustainable coffees in the United States.

Today, the coffee sector is in crisis again. This time the crisis is driven not by what is happening in the marketplace, but by what is happening in the field. Coffee leaf rust, a fungus from the same family of “rusts” that affect U.S. staple crops like corn and wheat, has reached epidemic proportions in Central America. As much as 70 percent of Central America’s coffee fields are affected. Production losses for this harvest exceed 100 million pounds. Farmers have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues due to low production. And hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost as there is less coffee to pick, process and export. Estimates of missed revenues are well into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The humanitarian impacts of the coffee rust epidemic on vulnerable farm families are still not entirely understood. Farmers still have money they earned during the recent harvest, but we know from our experience in the field – and from research conducted by our partners Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture – that money doesn’t last long. Coffee-growing families quickly settle into the long lean season between the coffee and staple crop harvests, when cash flows slow to a trickle and families routinely cope with food scarcity. The early indications are that we will not see famine or acute suffering this year, but with official data suggesting that coffee rust could have twice the impact next harvest, I worry that we may be watching a humanitarian crisis unfold in slow motion.

This week, I will be representing CRS during four days of meetings with a broad range of actors – national governments, research institutes, coffee roasters, non-profit agencies, banks, coffee certifiers and others – trying to develop a strategy for coordinated action to mitigate the negative impacts of the current crisis and help vulnerable family farmers prepare for the next one.

In preparation for the meetings, I have been reflecting on the idea of crisis, trying to remember that challenges and opportunities are two sides of the same coin. The last crisis caused a lot of suffering in the coffeelands, but it also created opportunities. It awakened many actors to the social and economic realities of life in the coffeelands – not just coffee consumers, but even importers and roasters who were engaged in the trade but perhaps didn’t fully understand the challenges a small-scale farming family faces. It catalyzed innovation, unleashing a wave of creative initiatives to make the coffee trade more sustainable. It drove the phenomenal growth of the U.S. Fair Trade market, as roasters and consumers sought opportunities to be part of the solution through purchases that generated more benefits for farmers and their communities

Before the current crisis, we had already begun to recognize the shortcomings of the leading approaches to sustainable coffee. My hope is that a new generation of leaders in coffee will rise to the challenge of the current crisis to create a new wave of opportunities for small-scale coffee farmers and their families.

Michael Sheridan has worked on coffee for CRS since 2004. From 2004-2007, he directed the CRS Fair Trade Coffee Project. Since 2007, he has been involved with CRS coffee projects overseas in Central and South America. He currently lives in Ecuador and publishes more detailed analyses of the coffee leaf rust epidemic and the ways CRS is working to respond on the CRS Coffeelands Blog at coffeelands.crs.org.

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