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WCR urges instant action to fight coffee leaf rust

World Coffee Research (WCR) has announced that fighting coffee leaf rust through genetic resistance won’t be enough to protect farmers from significant crop losses.

Coffee leaf rust has wreaked havoc on coffee production, particularly in Latin America, since an epidemic hit in 2012. Some farms lost 50 to 80 per cent of their production, and the epidemic forced 1.7 million people out of work.

The global coffee industry has since united to help farmers fight coffee leaf rust through the development of improved coffee varieties such as F1 hybrids, most of which are resistant to rust and other plant diseases.

However, WCR Scientific Director Dr Christophe Montagnon told attendees at the Association for Science and Information on Coffee Portland conference on 19 September that this is not a permanent solution.

“Rust resistance coming from different sources of introgression — the transferring of genes from one species to another after hybridisation and backcrossing — is being broken step by step,” Dr Montagnon says.

Dr Montagnon says that researchers believe it is only a matter of time before rust resistance in most of the existing resistant varieties is going to break down, perhaps in as soon as five to 10 years in many countries.

WCR says to act on coffee leaf rust, three issues need to be addressed. First, farmers need to focus on plant health as a major component of defence against rust.

Second, those traveling between origin countries must develop a heightened sensitivity and awareness for appropriate phytosanitary practices to prevent spreading fungi and other diseases from farm to farm or region to region.

Third, the coffee industry needs to prioritise ongoing research and development. New sources of rust resistance can be found and must be discovered to foster sustainable coffee production.

WCR says a crucial part of rust-control strategies going forward is the promotion of plant health in coffee production, which has been overlooked in the past. A recent study from WCR and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development showed that good fertilisation can be as effective as spraying fungicide in protecting a genetically susceptible coffee to rust.

WCR says one of the main reasons for the 2012 rust crisis in Central America was farmers’ reduced maintenance of their trees, due to low prices of coffee.

Beyond promoting plant health, WCR has launched multiple initiatives to combat coffee rust. It is continuing to search for new sources of resistance that could be used in breeding, and creating F1 hybrid varieties that are more tolerant to stress and have been shown to fare better against rust.

WCR has committed to learning more about coffee leaf rust, studying coffee profitability through WCR’s Global Coffee Monitoring Program and exploring new solutions such as biocontrol.

“The research community shall proceed to develop new varieties with new sources of resistance but also build up comprehensive rust-control strategies that go beyond genetics alone,” Dr Montagnon says.

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