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Central America’s Leaf Rust Outbreak Seen as Worst in Decades

The coffee leaf rust outbreak in Central America continues to grow and is now expected to wreak widespread damage to local farm economies as well as exports. Coffee estates in Mexico, Nicaragua and Central America have all reported catastrophic outbreaks, and political leaders in each country are taking steps to help curb the outbreak.

leaf rust disease on coffee plants

Creative Commons photo by CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

With that in mind, the international weekly journal of science Nature has taken a historic look at the leaf rust fungus, known as Hemileia vastatrixwith some sources describing the current outbreak as the worst in more than 40 years. Here’s more from

The fungus first emerged as a significant problem by 1869 in Ceylon — now Sri Lanka — before spreading around the world. Stuart McCook, a historian at the University of Guelph in Canada who studies the rust, says that the wet weather in some areas of Ceylon was ideal for the spread of the fungus, and more than 90% of coffee crops were wiped out in those regions. Faced with an economic catastrophe, the country abandoned coffee for the tea it is associated with today. The disease is so universal that it “is not going to be eradicated; or the only way to eradicate the disease in practice is to eradicate all of the coffee”, says McCook.

By 1970, the fungus had been detected in Brazil, and severe outbreaks were seen in Costa Rica in 1980 and Nicaragua in 1995, says Jacques Avelino, a plant pathologist at Costa Rica’s Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center, based in San José.

But changes to management practices had brought the disease mostly under control. “Coffee rust was considered a solved problem by most of the coffee growers and coffee institutes of the region”, says Avelino. “People didn’t fear the disease.” The outbreak may have taken hold because of patchy use and effectiveness of fungicides.

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