FFAR Grant Protects Coffee From Leaf Rust Disease

Hilo, Hawaii

  • Next Generation Crops

Coffee leaf rust disease is threatening the Hawaii coffee industry, the state’s second top commodity. Caused by the emerging Hemileia vastatrix fungus, coffee leaf rust attacks the leaves of coffee trees, ultimately reducing coffee trees’ yields. To address this threat, the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded a $150,000 Rapid Outcomes for Agriculture Research (ROAR) grant to the Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council to investigate the fungus and develop tactics to counter it.

At least for me, coffee is an integral part of my day, and it is a critical component of many Americans’ diets. Yet, this vital crop is under siege in Hawaii by a rampant pathogen, coffee leaf rust. FFAR is funding critical research on early interventions to protect coffee crops and the livelihoods of Hawaii coffee farmers. Sally Rockey, Ph.D.
Executive Director Emeritus

Coffee leaf rust was discovered in Hawaii in October 2020, but the disease has been devastating farms throughout Central and South America since 2011. In that region, the disease harmed crops on 70 percent of coffee farms and caused more than $3.2 billion in damage.

The spread of coffee leaf rust in Central and South America was tied to the 2008 global financial crisis, which stunted coffee demand, prices and farmer profits. Farmers responded by curtailing pathogen management to save money. A cycle developed where leaf rust attacked unharvested coffee plants, causing the farmer to abandon the farm due to a lack of resources and allowing leaf rust to spread to neighboring farms, driving more farmers away.

The coronavirus pandemic is creating similar market dynamics that led to the spread of coffee rust in Central and South America. The pandemic is diverted resources away from coffee management. For example, efforts to slow COVID’s spread, including border closures, is also limiting or eliminating the ability to hire migrant workers, who are essential for implementing the management practices that could slow the spread of coffee leaf rust.

To combat coffee leaf rust and protect Hawaii coffee, researchers, led by Dr. Catherine Aime of Purdue University, are sequencing the coffee leaf rust genome. By understanding the disease, researchers can develop coffee cultivars that resist rust or develop fungicides based on the disease’s genetic weaknesses.

“Coffee is a tremendous economic driver in Hawaii, and our growers were devastated by the arrival of leaf rust,” said Suzanne Shriner, administrator of Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council. “FFAR’s rapid assistance, in combination with matching funds raised by the community, will benefit immediate research and extension needs. This first step will set the baseline for the development of long-term management solutions to control this deadly disease.”

To monitor and mitigate the impact of coffee leaf rust in Hawaii and prevent or limit its spread, researchers, led by Research Plant Pathologist Dr. Lisa Keith of the USDA Agricultural Research Service, are developing and deploying methods for detection and strategies for management.

“Successful management will depend on having accurate, early ways of detecting the emerging pathogen and then short- and long-term solutions we can use to delay the onset of disease,” said Keith.

The 2017 Ag Census counted nearly 1,500 coffee operations with an average size of under five acres. All are threatened by coffee leaf rust. The University of Hawaii’s (UH) College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) Cooperative Extension, with funding support from the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, is developing materials and conducting workshops and other outreach activities to educate growers and farm workers on the best practices for managing the disease. This includes translation for many industry members whose primary language is Spanish, Ilocano or Tagalog.

“This is an exciting opportunity that will help CTAHR ‘get the word out’ to Hawaii coffee growers on how to manage coffee leaf rust. Much thanks to FFAR,” said UH Extension Agent Andrea Kawabata.

The Hawaii Coffee Association, Hawaii Coffee Growers Association, The Maui Coffee Association, Purdue University, United Ka’u Farmers Cooperative provided $142,137 in matching fund support. The Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council and the Hawaii Department of Agriculture provided material support for a $431,103 total investment in controlling the emerging fungus and protecting farm operations.


Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda. FFAR’s model matches federal funding from Congress with private funding, delivering a powerful return on taxpayer investment. Through collaboration and partnerships, FFAR advances actionable science benefiting farmers, consumers and the environment.

Connect: @FoundationFAR | @RockTalking

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