Searching for a Solution to the Coffee Rust Epidemic: How Spectrophotometry May Provide the Answers

We live in what I like to refer to as the “latte” generation, where coffee houses and cafes can be found on nearly every street corner. Even my personal budget has a portion set aside for my weekly coffee habit. But with news of the coffee rust epidemic wreaking havoc for major coffee producers around the world, price increases may soon change our coffee consuming culture.

Coffee rust is quickly becoming a major concern for many coffee growers, developers, and manufacturers. “Coffee rust is caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix which causes powdery yellow to orange spots on leaves. These leaf spots eventually turn brown and infected leaves drop from the coffee plant prematurely. Severe defoliation by coffee rust weakens the coffee plant, reduces yield and can eventually kill the coffee plant.”

plant coffee rust
Coffee rust is a fungus that attacks the leaves of the coffee plant, eventually resulting in lower coffee bean yields and eventually killing the plant entirely.
Image Source: Flickr user Cliff

Predominantly a problem in the Central and South American regions, coffee rust (also known as ‘la Roya’ or ‘Roya disease’) is quickly depleting crops in these areas, but the economic toll can be felt around the globe. Coffee beans from this region are unique and prized for their bold flavors and heavily developed sugar content, which help to create the deep rich color that coffee manufacturers covet when creating premium coffee blends. Coffee growers in this region pride themselves on the quality of their beans and are trying to find a solution to help maintain the integrity of their product. As of yet, no remedies have been able to tackle this insurmountable problem, but spectrophotometric technology offers steps toward an answer.

Coffee rust is an epidemic that affects us all

Coffee growers are desperate for an answer to this terrible epidemic. In 2013, the Guatemalan government and the Guatemalan Nation Coffee agency declared a national state of emergency after the projection of nearly a 15% crop loss in the Guatemalan region alone, and another 60% – 70% recorded losses in other Latin American countries. The devastation has continued to spread due to higher temperatures in this region, which are making fungus growth at higher altitudes possible. Higher temperatures may be linked to climate change and many fear that these conditions will not be shifting anytime soon. These losses not only affect the immediate local economy; the effects will soon be felt worldwide. According to the American Phytopathological Society (APS), “coffee rust is the most economically important coffee disease in the world, and in monetary value, coffee is the most important agricultural product in international trade.” Without a solution, the effects on the coffee industry may soon be reflected in price and availability.

growers coffee rust
Coffee is an important agricultural commodity in the international trade market, and the coffee rust epidemic threatens both the local and global economy.
Image Source: Flickr user jakeliefer

Early fungi detection may provide an answer

Many growers are unsure of what to do and have already invested a significant amount of money into a variety of fungicides in hopes of eliminating or at least reducing the effects of this debilitating problem. Unfortunately, these options do not appear to be working. Many farmers are unsure of how to properly use these harsh chemicals, and in many cases, these fungicides are only contributing to the problem. According to Sustainable Harvest Coffee News, the use of fungicides has been shown to “actually perpetuate the conditions that make coffee plants more susceptible to disease.” Desperate for a safer and better method for reversing the effects of this disease, growers are readily looking at other alternatives.

The best found solution so far relies on early detection of fungi on plant leaves and the eradication of diseased plants. New crops must be protected from the infestation of these microscopic spores, so fungus detection must be reliable yet affordable. Spectrophotometric technology provides a portable and effective remedy for early fungus detection and may be the solution for suppressing this epidemic problem. This technology has already proven to be effective in the detection of fungus infection in tobacco crops and has been used to differentiate the “spectral signature” of the plant leaves, which aids in early detection. Similar technology can be applied to the coffee rust epidemic, by providing information related to fungus spores, helping growers and farmers to protect the newly planted crops that are needed to rebuild the coffee supply.

young plants coffee rust
Early detection of fungus spores through spectrophotometric analysis can protect new coffee plants and may provide an answer for the coffee rust epidemic.
Image Source: Flickr user jakeliefer

Spectral analysis instrumentation

Spectrophotometers provide the highest level of technology in spectral analysis. Using color technology, spectrophotometric instrumentation can detect slight variations in color and quantify this data to provide exact information about the sample properties. When this technology is applied to agricultural purposes, the potential is limitless. Using spectrophotometers to differential the “spectral signatures” of coffee plants may be the future in the early detection of coffee rust, which may lead to the control of this devastating plague. Other solutions to the coffee rust epidemic using this technology include the development of a disease resistant plant variety through spectral DNA analysis. Spectrophotometers are invaluable in many industries, and many coffee growers and manufacturers already understand the benefits the technology offers. Affordability, portability, and durability all make spectrophotometers a prime resource when searching for a solution to the coffee rust problem.

HunterLab is a leader in spectrophotometers, with superb technology in agricultural and scientific applications. We have strong ties with the coffee industry and have developed instrumentation specifically formulated for coffee roasting and color measurement. The coffee rust epidemic concerns more than coffee growers and manufacturers, and at HunterLab we are committed to helping find a solution to the problem.  Contact HunterLab today to learn more about how we can help meet your needs.

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