Colombia in a Race Against Time to Protect Coffee Crops from Rust Disease

Coffee drinkers beware: there is a disease plaguing the coffee plants in Colombia, and it could seriously affect the dark brew that we love so much.

Coffee rust is a disease that has been an issue for coffee growers for centuries. It is known to have wiped out the product from countries like Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and it is believed to be one reason the British took to drinking tea: Sri Lanka began producing tea because coffee was no longer an option.

Coffee rust, which is caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix, attacks a tree, discoloring the bush’s leaves “from a bright green to a brownish yellow. In the end, the tree loses all its leaves, as well as its ability to produce beans,” according to the BBC. Coffee rust is a particular problem for Colombia because it attacks the type of coffee that is the popular export: Coffee arabica. The country also produces, on a smaller scale, Coffea canephora, which is more bitter, yet more robust. The latter is not affected by the disease.

According to the BBC, last year, Colombia’s “coffee exports were worth $2.4bn (£1.8bn), and was 7.7% of all goods the country sold overseas. That makes Colombia the third largest producer of coffee in the world.” So if coffee rust truly takes hold, it could cripple the country’s economy (don’t forget about the hundreds of thousands of people who work in coffee production there). And what that means for the rest of us is a serious increase in the price of coffee, as well as a limitation on our coffee options.

The solution that Colombia coffee producers have come up with is a tedious and, unfortunately, expensive solution: to create a hybrid of their two dominant coffee crops that can withstand the threat of coffee rust, like canephora, but also taste as delicious as arabica. The bean that has emerged as a top contender is Castillo — it has not yet been fully embraced, but its mild sweetness and fruity flavors show promise.