Coffee rust ruins arabica bean crops

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Coffee aficionados face the prospect of prohibitively expensive beans in the near future as the coffee rust epidemic spreads through the Central American crop. Coffee rust is a fungus that attacks the plants and prevents the berries from ripening. Increasingly wet weather across the highlands of Central America is making coffee rust more prevalent.

Coffee rust has a history of devastating crops. A virulent outbreak in Sri Lanka in the 19th century is credited with converting the English from a nation of coffee-lovers to tea-drinkers. Coffee rust reached Central America in the 1970s but the current outbreak is the worst on record affecting half of the coffee-growing areas in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.

Coffee importer David Griswold has witnessed the scale of the devastation to some of the crops in the region. "You can see from the flowering what the losses will be," he said. "It’s just twigs. It’s as though you’re walking through a forest of twigs."

Premium coffee crops will be widely affected. The Central American growers specialise in arabica beans, used in the highest quality coffee. Robusta beans, grown throughout the world, are less susceptible to coffee rust but produce a lower quality coffee. Coffee-drinkers who like specific types of bean will find that their favourites are much pricier or completely unavailable. "It’s the better-quality coffees that are going to get more expensive and harder to come by," Peter Giuliano of the Specialty Coffee Association of America said. "People will be reminded that coffee is special and delicate."

Climate change is being blamed for the spread of the disease. The fungus requires humid conditions to grow. Recent climate changes has affected the higher altitude areas of coffee crops in Central America. The summer of 2012 was particularly warm and wet in the region, resulting in the current blight.

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