Coffee the next crop to be saved by Transgenics?

Coffee rust, by Phil A. Arneson

As I was drinking my morning cup of coffee the other day, I got an email from a friend about a Wired article describing the dire straits the coffee crop has found itself in and how transgenics could be a possible savior. Putting down my cup of joe, I started investigating what was going on with the coffee crop and what might happen to my future cups of coffee.

The Coffee Rust Problem

It seems coffee farmers are up against a large-scale affliction from the leaf-blighting fungus known as coffee rust (Hemileia vastatrix). Historically, coffee rust has been a recurring problem across the globe. It wreaked havoc in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Java, and Malaya during the 1880s and 1890s and then spent the next hundred years making its way across the world and infecting nearly all coffee growing areas in the western hemisphere. General management practices have included building wind breaks (the spores of the fungus are wind and rain dispersed), spraying fungicides, and quarantining sick plants and killing all neighboring plants in the vicinity.

These practices seem to have worked more or less in the past, but they are inadequate against today’s current pandemic. Unfortunately, the coffee rust disease has two things going for it. The first is climate change. The fungus thrives in warm, humid air and, as the Wired article points out, temperatures in Central America are warming due to changing climate. Coffee farms at high altitudes that used to be protected from the fungus because of cool temperatures are now finding themselves infected just like their lowland neighbors as the coffee rust disease extends its range.

Coffee rust discovery dates around the World, by Phil A. Arneson. (Adapted from Schieber, E. and G.A. Zentmyer. 1984. Coffee rust in the Western Hemisphere. Plant Dis. 68:89-93.)

The second advantage coffee rust has is changing growing practices. Coffee is naturally a shade plant and, in the past, coffee farmers generally acknowledged this fact by planting the crop under the canopies of shady trees. However, in recent years, farmers have been reducing shady areas to increase plant density and yield. The increase in direct sunlight has lead to two unfortunate things: (1) field temperatures have risen and therefore have increased the ability of the fungus to germinate and spread, and (2) a shade-loving fungus that protects against coffee rust, known as white halo fungus, can no longer be a natural defense for the coffee plants.

Riding on the coat tails of climate change and ecologically imbalanced growing practices, the coffee rust fungus has put Central American coffee production on red alert. The fungus currently afflicts 50% of all growing areas in the region, stretching from Guatemala all the way down to Panama. Almost half a million people are out of work, production was down 15% from last year and is expected to be down 50% for the upcoming harvest in October, and Guatemala declared a state of agricultural emergency back in February.

The Transgenic Solution

A Brazillian coffee farmer

So what is going to happen to coffee?

It seems, for now, that some coffee varieties will not be affected by the disease since they are naturally resistant. These varieties are the Robusta varieties, which are considered to be of lower quality than their Arabica counterparts. Arabica coffee varieties are used to make high quality brews and make up over 75% of the world’s coffee production (for more information on Robusta vs. Arabica, see this article from The Atlantic). However, they are not resistant to coffee rust.

So what is going to happen to the good coffee?

To save (Arabica) coffee, we need to act fast. Faster than the coffee rust fungus. The incredible loss in production in only one year, 15% to 50%, should be clear evidence for how fast and devastating the disease can be.

We could try to take away some of the advantages the fungus has. Unfortunately, we cannot stop climate change any time soon, but farmers could try to revert to more ecologically sound growing practices. But could these changes be implemented and the benefits reaped fast enough to curb the fungus? Probably not.

We could continue what we have done in the past—applying fungicide, building wind breaks, quarantining—but these methods were in place while coffee rust built up its momentum over the past few years. It seems they have done all they can do.

We need something new. We need Arabica coffee varieties that are naturally resistant to the fungus.

One way we could do this is through conventional breeding, meaning crossing plants and selecting for the desirable trait(s) over a series of generations. This is a fantastic idea since it would lessen and possibly eliminate fungicide applications. The Colombian research organization Cenicafé has actually already developed a rust-resistant coffee variety and made it available to coffee farmers, but it is not a pure Arabica variety. Developing a pure Arabica, rust-resistant variety and releasing it for commercial use could take up to a decade, which is too much time.

We need transgenics to save coffee.

Coffee producers might fear that their economically perilous situation will become more perilous if consumers refuse to buy GMO coffee. But, I think the story of the Rainbow Papaya is an excellent example of how transgenics can bring a failing crop back from the brink.

Frank N. Foode sweetens his transgenic coffee with beet sugar, by KJHvM

In the 1990s, Hawaiian papaya farmers were up against the ringspot virus (Potyviridae). They were losing horribly—production was reduced to 50% within in six years (sound familiar?)—until Dr. Dennis Gonsalves, a plant pathologist, genetically engineered a virus-resistant variety, the Rainbow Papaya, which saved the Hawaiian papaya crop (see this previous Biofortified post for more information). Some consider the Hawaiian papaya a GMO success story and an excellent example of GMOs being used for good. Now, when papaya farmers had to decide if they would adopt the GMO papaya, they feared they would lose business—mainly from Japan, historically a major consumer—because of the switch to GMOs. However, from the time Rainbow Papaya was initially adopted, it has become the primary variety grown, the Hawaiian papaya industry has been recovering, and Japan even started accepting the variety in December 2011.

The time is now for transgenic coffee. Even if it is only used as a temporary relief until better growing practices can be implemented or the fungus can be put under control, there is a clear need for GMO coffee.

I look forward to my future cups of GMO joe.

Caroline is currently a graduate student in the Plant Biology department at the University of Georgia. She is working in the Dawe Lab and studies the genetics responsible for perenniality in species closely related to corn. Before starting graduate school, Caroline worked for a year as a science writer for the Illinois State Legislature.


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12 comments to Coffee the next crop to be saved by Transgenics?

  • I would prefer a GMO trait than more fungicides, that’s for sure. I hope they can get a handle on this–not just because of my own morning habit, but for those farmers and farm workers too. I’d like to see them with the best possible tools at hand as quickly as possible.

  • Are there already known genes that could be used to make transgenic resistant coffee? There’s often a pretty big gap behind a hypothetical concept like this and a working construct. I’d say the first step is to check out existing natural variation for candidates…

    • Thanks for the great question, Matt. Nine resistance genes have been identified (they are referred to as SH1 through 9) and in 2010 one was partially sequenced. Here’s a nice description of recent genetic work on coffee rust resistance (second to last paragraph in the background section): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3113787/

    • But aren’t there also possibly cases where the mechanism of rust infection is elucidated, and that there could be better responses from other species? I don’t know the coffee rust case, but in the case of bananas I know one resistance gene is from peppers. And isn’t the huanglongbing citrus resistance possibly from spinach?

  • Caroline,
    The specialty coffee industry made a decision very early on to eschew genetic engineering as a solution – well before the current rust epidemics in the Americas. I spoke at the Specialty Coffee Association meetings in Boston in April and rust was the main topic. Although the industry takes this disease threat very seriously, they are sticking with their no GE stance because they know that much of their customer-base would never pause to listen to a reasoned explanation.

    There are abundant sources of genetic variation in the genus, but moving traits around in such a quality-sensitive crop is highly problematic. There are ploidy differences to overcome, and frankly the homework on mapping either disease resistance- or quality-related genes is only beginning.

    We rich people who love coffee will not likely have to find some new source of caffeine (as the English did in the 1800s when the same disease wiped out their plantations in Sri-Lanka and Java). There are moderate elevation areas that can actually farm coffee in a modern fashion with reasonable quality. The people who will lose in this are the small-holder farmers who grow Arabica in Central and South American highlands. Their food security has always been marginal, and this disease will likely push them over the edge to shift crops or move to the cities. Demographic trends are also working against that business model.

    I’d say that what we are headed for is lifestyle disruption for lots of poor people while the rest of us will have the “First World Problem” of saying, “My expensive specialty coffee isn’t as romantic as it used to be.”

    Honestly, even biotech could probably not save the small-holder model at this point. They don’t even have a few years to hold on. Some companies in the specialty coffee industry actually were actually considering starting a biotech program back in the mid-1990s. If they had, they might have been able to deal with this issue. Greenpeace etc should take full credit for hurting peasant farmers, because it was their baseless fear-mongering that intimidated this and many other industries.

    • David

      Anti-gmo folks would never admit that their crusade against this technology results in hardships or even mass immigration. They would rather blame NAFTA or Cartels exclusively. For their obstructionism in developing nations History will not Remember them kindly.

  • Caroline,

    Thanks for your post. Do you (or anyone else here) know if there is active academic research on Coffea transgenics? I was wondering if those R genes in the paper you linked had been transformed into arabica. Perhaps success in the lab coupled with a proactive campaign (to get ahead of the FUD propagators) would be effective, esp. with backing of an NGO like the Gates Foundation. Using genes from Coffea might be less distasteful to the activists and even more so if it’s not going to “enrich” “Big Ag”? Maybe I’m too optimistic but this kind of problem is exactly why I went into ag biotech. So much promise…

  • In my opinion, work like this needs to be done in the public sector. Trying to make gmos work in industry is a slow motion nightmare. If I ran a coffee company, I’d use inferior quality, resistant trees rather than attempting transgenics. They’re too expensive and carrry the very real risk of public rejection.

  • Josue

    Transgenics migh be the cause of this problem, supply and demand i guess, we are going to reach some serious trouble if we keep thinking that we can be god. The monopolies who managed this whole thing, its all about money isnt it? i am an engineer, transgenics affect people, it is true that there is not going to be enough food for all of us in the upcoming decades, we might stop this mindless consumerism, this will destroy the land of my central america, i think we better stop making diseases. With all respect just an opinion of a Central America guy

    • Josue,
      The disease in question here, coffee rust, has been an issue for coffee production since the mid 1880s and had made it to Central America by the 1980s – both long, long before there were any GMO crops.

  • Christina

    Hello,

    Caffeine is not a great item for us – nor is Genetically Modified Foods. Perhaps if humans weren’t such great consumers, our world would be safe and sound. Unfortunately, this is not the case – if the Human Consumers of the world would realize their selfishness and plan for the future – FREE and CLEAR of GMO’s…..our future might have a chance.

    But hey, maybe this is the governments way of reducing the ‘herd’…after all….HEALTH CARE is a business in some countries and not a necessity for some folks. And lets not forget about the less fortunate….who are forced to eat GMO laden food because they can’t afford the good stuff (ORGANIC) but then you have to ask yourself…..was this the original plan to begin with? To get rid of the poor, uneducated people of the world? Just remember…..if all the poor people are gone…who will pick up your garbage and serve your food when we are all gone??!!!

    Just my opinion…. :)
    Happy Canadian who eats ORGANIC EVERYTHING and NO GMO’s!!

    • Christina,
      Actually you are the one at risk from your expensive organic food. It can be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria. It can have relatively toxic residues of the copper salts used as “natural fungicides.” If it contains grain-based ingredients, fruit juice concentrates or other non-perishable components, those are increasingly coming from places like China where even if it is actually organic, its grown in an environment where the air, water and soil are often contaminated and from a grain handling system that frequently turns out to be contaminated with mycotoxins.

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