There are many diseases that infect coffee, but none are as prevalent and difficult to control as this one. (Coffee Berry Disease is pretty horrible, but it is still contained to the African continent.) Almost every coffee producing region in the world has Coffee Leaf Rust ( roya, in Spanish), and they all struggle with controlling it. The rust attacks the leaves and turns off any activity in a leaf where it touches. Very light infections simply reduce the photosynthetic ability of a leaf. As infections become more intense, leaves die.
If many leaves on a plant are heavily infected, then the plant can lose all its leaves and any fruit that is maturing since there are no leaves to sustain the fruit. The fungus doesn’t actively attack the coffee we drink, it just prevents us from ever having coffee to drink.
There are some fungicides that can be used to combat the fungus. However, they are expensive and have to be applied multiple times throughout the season. For small farmers (which make up the vast majority of coffee farmers worldwide), the cost alone can be prohibitive. For farmers with larger tracts of land, the cost is not inconsequential.
Moreover, many farms are planted on steep, mountain slopes that are difficult to walk on.
Imagine the difficulty of walking on a steep slope and spraying a pesticide at the same time!
With fungicides being a poor option, the best solution is to plant varieties that are (at least somewhat) resistant to the fungus. Unfortunately, there are no pure arabica lines that are resistant. In the 1930s, by a highly unlikely fluke of nature, a natural cross between C.
arabica and C. canephora occurred, producing the offspring known as the Timor hybrid.
This plant, having genetic lineage of both species, was resistant to the rust. Once it was discovered, it became the center of several breeding programs around the world. While the disease resistance was a nice inheritance from its canephora parent, it also inherited some of the undesired taste attributes. So, the breeding programs tried not only to improve its agronomic traits but its quality traits, as well. Over the years, other hybrids were discovered or made. These hybrids were, over many generations, bred with pure arabica lines to further improve their taste. Now the world is populated with many of these breeding program offspring.
The taste of these offspring has never managed to equal that of a pure arabica line, no matter how many backcrosses have occurred. Still, these offspring are rightly called arabica varieties because so much of their genetic material comes from the arabica species. Currently, there are some recent releases that show a great deal of promise in offering rust resistance and desirable quality.
Unfortunately, as with any disease, resistance is not a cure. The fungus is constantly mutating and adapting. Many strains now exist that can attack not only some of the hybrids but pure C. canephora lines, as well. So long as coffee is a crop, we will be in constant flux with this and other diseases. It isn’t particularly fun or joyful, but it is the way of life.
It was a hybrid featuring the genetic lineage from both Arabica and Robusta plants that became the savior for breeding more rust-resistant coffee plants.
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