World War Zzzzz

World War Zzzzz[1]


The beans (seeds) on a coffee plant do not ripen at the same time. Coffee is a labor intensive crop. (Photo credit: Howard F. Schwartz, Colorado State University,

A world food crisis brewing and we face a horrific future unless something can be done.

No, it is not that more people die of hunger around the world than from malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV-AIDS combined—that is old news. Push aside that every day about one billion people go to bed hungry because they cannot afford to buy 1800 calories worth of food. It is not that one billion people have no access to electricity for refrigeration to store food and prevent spoilage. And, no it is not the people are, gasp, eating non-organic GMO food and living longer. Lots of Americans will care about this crisis (with the exception of Mormons, Rastafarians and Seventy Day Adventists).

Due to a pandemic sweeping through the world, we might have to go without our usual cup of joe or pay much higher prices.

Coffee production is a $15 billion industry employing more than 26 million people in 70 countries. According to the International Coffee Organization, in “coffee-year 2009/10” global consumption totaled around 134 million 60 Kg bags—nearly 18 billion pounds of coffee—that would be about 1 billion espresso shots every day. In the U.S. coffee contributes nearly $18 billion to the economy.

Coffee was first discovered in what is now Ethiopia in the 13th century though it was probably known and used by nomads of the region for thousands of years before. It spread through the Arab world in the 1500s and crossed over to Europe a little more than one hundred years later. The first coffeehouse opened in London in 1650. Commerce received a jolt when people switched from alcohol (a depressant) to caffeine (a stimulant). Coffee houses became enlightened meeting places where, as the Economist magazine noted, “[F]or the price of a cup of coffee, you could read the latest pamphlets, catch up on news and gossip, attend scientific lectures, strike business deals, or chat with like-minded people about literature or politics.”

Tom Standage writes that not everyone approved of this new drink; critics said, “Christians had abandoned their traditional beer in favor of a foreign drink…”

The culprit behind the coming pandemic is coffee rust caused by a fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) that attacks coffee plants (Coffea spp.), withering the leaves. The less popular robusta coffee plant (C. canephora) resists the fungus better than the more popular arabica coffee plant (C. arabica). While robusta coffee beans have 67 percent more caffeine than arabica beans (which some coffee drinkers count as a plus), it is has a more bitter flavor (which counts as a minus with many coffee drinkers). Arabica coffee accounts for about 70 percent of the global market.

The rust was first discover near Lake Victoria in eastern Africa in 1861. It was found in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in 1869 and caused the British to change their beverage as the crops there shifted from coffee to tea. Ever wonder why the British are tea drinkers? Blame the coffee rust. The rust spread to Brazil in 1970 and has been moving through the coffee producing countries of the western hemisphere ever since.

Forecasters project next year’s crop to be 50 percent less. The typical control methods of windbreaks, fungicides, and removing diseased and the surrounding plants have not been effective enough. According to the International Coffee Organization, “On average, over 50% of the total [prime] coffee growing area in Central America has been affected by the pest.” Mexico also has problems with coffee rust. Only Colombia’s farmers have rid that country of the fungus by planting hybridized coffee plants, which are crosses between arabica varieties and robustas.

Two things have increased the rust’s reach: global warming and growing coffee plants in full sunlight. The warming climate has moved the reach of the rust higher up into the mountains where it had been too cool before. Farmers have also been bringing the historically shade-grown plants into open sun to increase the bean production but increasing sunlight also benefits the rust’s production—by a factor of up to ten—according to some research.

As noted above, Colombia’s coffee crop is largely rust free, according to Rachel Tepper writing in the Huffington Post. Conventional breeding by Colombia’s Cenicafé, a research group funded by Colombia’s coffee growers, has produced two crosses between robusta and aribica: “Colombia” and “castilla” varieties. “The results are striking: in 2011, more than 40 percent of all Colombian plantations were infected with coffee rust. As of 2013, Cenicafé puts that number at 5 percent.” The article gives no clue as to the resulting taste of the new coffee varieties.

Whether coffee drinkers will accept these new varieties remains to be seen. Conventional breeding involves crossing and backcrossing varieties and introduces thousands to hundreds of thousands of new genetic combinations, which could affect its taste. Dr. Kevin Folta, an expert in Molecular Biology with the University of Florida, Horticultural Sciences Department, has an excellent chart showing “Standard cross-breeding” rearranging 10,000 to 300,000 genes “depending on the species.”

The taste of these new crosses may or may not be popular among coffee drinkers. To have no change in a heritage varietal’s taste would require transgenic breeding (in other words, GMO). Researchers have identified nine genes as rust resistant in two of the twenty-five species of Coffea. Rather than rearranging 10,000-plus genes, the transgenic rDNA method would place 1 to 3 of these genes into the gene sequence, hugely lowering the chance of a taste change.

Transgenic breeding may not even be tried. For one thing, it is quite expensive. One expert says the research and regulatory hurdles add up to approximately $30 to $60 million with a far–from-certain reward, given that many growers use organic methods and are opposed to rDNA crops.

Others, such as Cathy Coatney, writing on the Biology Fortified website, point to the success of the “Rainbow papaya,” which she says, “saved the Hawaiian papaya crop in Hawaii.” “The time is now for transgenic coffee,” she says “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 just want my Arabica beans. I have tried tea, yerba matte, and robusta; give me Arabica or give me zzzzzzz.

References/Further Reading

APSnet. (n.d.). Coffee Rust. Retrieved from APSnet:

Chenwei Lin, L. A. (2005, November). Coffee and tomato share common gene repertoires as revealed by deep sequencing of seed and cherry transcripts . Retrieved 2013, from U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institute for Health:

Coatney, C. (2013, June 22). Coffee the next crop to be saved by Transgenics? Retrieved July 2013, from Biology Fortified, Inc.:

Folta, K. (2012, June). What is “Genetically Modified”? and the Frankenfood Pardox . Retrieved June 2012, from Illumination:

International Coffee Organization. (n.d.). Coffee leaf rust outbreak. Retrieved ffrom International Coffee Organization:

Standage, T. (2013, June 22). Social Networking in the 1600s. Retrieved June 23, 2013, from

Stephen A. Ferreira, E. P. (n.d.). Hemileia vastatrix: coffee leaf rust (Plant Disease Pathogen). (U. o. Hawaii, Producer) Retrieved July 12, 2013, from Crop Knowledge Master:

Tepper, R. (2013, April 30). Coffee Rust Eradicated In Colombia’s Growing Regions, Marking A First For Latin America . Retrieved July 11, 2013, from Huffington Post:

The Economist. (2003, December). Coffee-houses: The internet in a cup. Retrieved July 2012, from The Economist:

[1] Other possible titles:

  • The Coming Coffee Apocalypse
  • Coffpocalypse 2013
  • Coffeetastrophe 2013
  • World War Coffee
  • Decaffeinate Me
  • Holy Cappuccinos, Batman! This is a Cafftastrophe!
  • I’ve Been Dropping Caffeic Acid Since I was 16
  • Give Me Arabica or Give Me Zzzzz

[2] According a 2013 survey by the National Coffee Association, “83% of the U.S. adult population now drinks coffee.” Those drinking coffee daily was 63%.



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