Changing Ecology and Coffee Rust

Against the Current, No. 165, July/August 2013

John Vandermeer

THE DEVASTATION OF coffee rust in the late 19th century seems to be repeating itself in the Americas, from Colombia to Mexico. “From Guatemala to Panama, governments are boosting aid to fight the fungus and keep workers from migrating to cities or north toward the United States. The disease wiped out as much as 25 percent of the region’s coffee crop this season.” (Seattle Times, May 18, 2013, ( It’s both an old and a new story.

It is commonly understood that the concentration of urban populations historically created a health care crisis. Large numbers of people living together created a convenient habitat for bacteria and viruses which, having had to contend with difficult dispersal among habitats (people), had their main biological problem resolved through densely populated urban environments. Widespread disease resulted.

Would it not be evident that repeating that intense concentration of individuals might result in a repeated response from the diseases that attack them? Indeed, history says yes.

In the 19th century, first the Dutch and shortly thereafter the English created a perfect disease habitat in southern India, Java, Sumatra and what was then called Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), when they decided to eliminate native vegetation and plant monocultures of coffee, creating the biological equivalent of the squalid slums of industrializing Manchester — this time not for people but for the plants that produce coffee beans.

From the point of view of the disaese organisms that seek the leaves of coffee bushes as their preferred habitat, this was a perfect setup. The organism Hemelia vastatrix, popularly known as the coffee rust, was released from what had previously been the natural control created by great distances between coffee plants. Though unaware, the Europeans who constructed this habitat were great friends of Hemelia vastatrix. But they were paid back with coffee plants so diseased that recovery was impossible and coffee, as a major crop in southern Asia, was simply abandoned.

Fast forward toward the present. An outbreak in Angola in 1966 may have been the source of a trans-Atlantic dispersal to Bahia, Brazil; within a few years it was found throughout that state and subsequently throughout Brazil. Anticipation of its spread to the north caused considerable concern, and farmers throughout the region were extensively warned of the coming disaster.

However, actions recommended for farmers were only partially based on evidence, and many farms ignored the recommendations anyway. In the end, worries that the disease would be as devastating in the Americas as it had been earlier in Asia seemingly were overblown and the pathogen remained a troublesome, but not devastating, problem for coffee production. Even those farms forgoing the recommended control methods didn’t suffer the devastation that had been feared.

The Crisis: Why Now?

Why those dire predictions never materialized until now is not known with certainty. However, it has been suggested that the complexity of the coffee ecosystem, especially in its more traditional form, may have previously acted as a natural resistance to the disease.

The general tendency for the past 20 years has been the reduction of shade cover in coffee. Traditionally, in northern South America, Central America and Mexico (the Brazilian style of coffee production is quite distinct), coffee has been grown under a canopy of shade trees, much as in its original habitat in Ethiopia. Beginning in the late 1980s, technocrats from the global north advised that farmers cut the shade trees in pursuit of higher yields (more sun provides greater yields, so the story goes).

Along with this reduction in shade there was a concomitant degrading of background ecological conditions that resulted in increased pesticide spraying and artificial fertilizer applications. This new system gradually replaced the shaded system.

It is strongly suspected that a generalized decrease in shade cover may have generated a change from the disease system under control on the more traditional farms, to one vulnerable to disease and pest outbreaks. Metaphorically, it’s the change from the dispersed living conditions of pre-industrial England to the slums of Manchester.

The increasing number of farms that were highly technified (fewer shade trees, more pesticides, more fertilizer) created ideal conditions for the slow development of the disease. Eventually the buildup of spores (the dispersal phase of the disease) passed a tipping point and all the farms in the region came under attack, even the more traditional ones.

Unfortunately the story is not unusual. Agriculture is generally a risky activity, and pre-modern farmers had famously devised an enormous number of practices that managed those risks, sometimes unknowingly but frequently based on a deep knowledge of natural processes, knowledge that today we would call ecological.

This ecological intelligence evolved, partially biologically but mainly culturally, over thousands of years.

Today many folks, from young urban farmers to ecologists in universities, are discovering this fact. Whether traditional farmers in the tropics or organic farmers in Michigan, a sense that the natural world contributes to the stability, productivity and sustainability of their farms is almost universal.

Technocrats of Degradation

The technocrats of agriculture, the established agricultural universities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its relatives in Europe, and the large agribusinesses all argue that this view is scientifically baseless, hopelessly romantic, and naïve.

Some even argue that it is dangerous because it stands in the way of desperately needed technological progress that we need to feed a growing population.

The farm, they argue, is not an environment to be stewarded by romantic environmentalists, but rather a battlefield on which the enemy, frequently a pest insect or plant pathogen, must be vanquished with the appropriate armaments, mostly pesticides (Russell, 2001).

This magic bullet solution to the problems of agriculture has become the sine qua non of industrial agriculture. Those who disagree are frequently portrayed as “intellectual farmers” who are impervious to the legitimate needs of farmers for necessary tools or the people of the world for food (Evans et al., 2002). They are charged with being naïve environmentalists who fail to appreciate how devastating a pest problem can be and the consequent need for industrial services to combat these enemies (Collier, 2008).

Nevertheless, the notion that nature can provide the same services within its own balancing act persists (Altieri, 1995; Vandermeer et al., 2010), frequently felt in the heart more than known in the head. Indeed, this is a thriving and growing notion among proponents of organic and ecological farming.

Recent academic research. coupled with a large amount of practical experience stemming from the burgeoning new food movement, clearly supports this alternative vision, and today we see a far more sophisticated vision of agriculture emerging.

Indeed, what seems naïve is the technocrats’ understanding of ecology. The vision of the natural world as an easily manipulated or conquered entity, an enemy to be battered into submission, is truly the naïve romanticism.

To be sure, the semi-religious view that nature is harmonious and balanced is also wrong — especially if we, in agreement with the technocrats, accept an unreconstructed Newtonian world view of balance (the idea that ecosystems are like a marble coming to rest at the bottom of an inverted cone, and our job is to help them get there).

Ecological reality is different. This is now understood by those who seriously study ecology as much as by farmers who may use different words, but understand the same things. Through the spatially explicit complexity of myriad nonlinear interactions, a higher notion of balance emerges — not a simple mechanical balance, but rather the balance of a shifting sand dune whose detailed structure changes by the hour, yet whose fundamental nature as a “sand dune” is never in doubt.

Ecological balance isn’t governed by the crude positivist logic that must identify a singular enemy to conquer and a magic bullet with which to do so, but rather the holistic vision of a new kind of “balance” emerging from the very complexity that traditional farmers intuitively understood from the beginning.

The story is especially poignant given the class structure of coffee production. Most coffee farms in the area affected by the coffee rust are small-scale family operations, and most of those farms rely on coffee for the bulk of their income. If farmers are going to go broke, the broken ones will be the small-scale farmers.


Altieri, M. A. 1995. Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agriculture. Westview.

Collier, P. 2008. “The politics of hunger: How illusion and greed fan the food crisis,” Foreign Affairs 87:67-79.

Evans, N., C. Morris and M. Winter. 2002. “Conceptualizing agriculture: A critique of post-productivism as the new orthodoxy.” Progress in Human Geography 26: 313-332.

Russell, E. 2001. War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Cambridge University Press.

Vandermeer, J., I. Perfecto, and S. Philpott 2010. “Pest control in organic coffee production: Uncovering an Autonomous Ecosystem Service.” Bioscience 60: 527-537.

July/August 2013, ATC 165