Now that we’ve discussed the coffee industry from both a business and plant ecology perspective, I thought it might be fun to combine the two, and create a bigger picture to see what happens when mother nature has her way with us humans.
Coffee plants are, like all other living organisms, subject to various stressors from the environment. Today we discuss two of the most common stressors to coffee plants; temperature (frost) and pathogens (Hemileia vastarix), and their effect on both the plants, as well as the world coffee market
While coffee plants are able to tolerate low temperatures, they are unable to tolerate any sort of frost. In the industry, there are two types of frosts; a “white frost” and a “black frost.” A white frost is used to describe a frost period that will only affect the following years harvest, whereas a black frost is used to describe a frost period where trees have been killed, and the consequences are much more severe. After a black frost, new plants have to be planted, with new cherries (and beans) typically appearing in 3-4 years. While Brazil is the only coffee producer that is susceptible to frost, due to being the largest producer, any negative effect on Brazil’s plantations has an overwhelmingly negative effect on the entire industry. In 1976/1977, ~75% of Brazil’s crops were compromised due to frost, resulting in enormous inflation of worldwide coffee prices (est. $6.28 per 8 oz. cup). Like the old adage in business, if supply decreases, demand will increase.
Pathogen/Disease: Hemileia vastarix and Coffee Plants
Besides frost, pathogens and disease are another major source of stress for coffee plants. One disease, Hemileia vastarix, is a fungus that attacks the leaves of coffee plants, causing a rust that can be devastating to coffee plantations. Being an obligate parasite, it is unable to survive unless it is in direct physical contact with coffee plants. Additionally, H. vastarix also requires suitable temperatures to develop, often only existing in plantations where temperatures are within the range of 10-35 degrees Celsius. Despite being discovered over 100 years ago, the disease is not very well understood, and has been a common source of grief for coffee industry. The latest iteration of its damaging effects occurred in 2012, when the disease broke out in Latin America and the Caribbean, resulting in the widespread loss of plantations. In Guatemala specifically, 70% of crops were decimated, resulting in the country declaring a state of emergency.
Once again, the coffee industry has a lot more than meets the eye. One of the most important things I’ve taken away from this experience is that small details, no matter how minuscule, can translate to large implications. Whether its analyzing financial data, assessing the growth of coffee plants, or protecting them from environmental stressors, the answer often lies in the details.
Article on Historical World Coffee Prices:
Article on H. vastarix:
BBC News Release on Guatemala: