A&M Group Takes Rust Coffee Fungus Head On

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COLLEGE STATION, Texas - A airborne fungus causing millions of dollars in damage to coffee crops in Central America could end up raising the price of your favorite latte.

The Rust Fungus has already caused more than a billion dollars in economic loss, threatening the livelihoods of small farmers throughout Central America.

"It's an airborne fungus that lands on the coffee plant and causes the coffee plant to drop its leaves," said Keith Cole with the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Texas A&M University.

Ashley Martin and her husband opened the Harvest Coffee Bar in downtown Bryan just a couple of months ago, with nothing more than a dream and a killer vanilla latte recipe.

"It's just sweet enough, but not too sweet," said Martin.

Martin said if something isn't done to combat the fungus soon, it could force small coffee shop owners like her to raise prices.

"It could negatively affect prices," said Martin.

It's tough to treat, and until now, there hasn't been much help.

"The estimates that we have is that if it's not addressed soon, that up to 15 to 40 percent more farmers will be impacted. And that translates to about half a million farmers that will lose their livelihoods," said Cole.

The World Coffee Research Program, part of the Norman Borlaug Institute, has been awarded $5 million to fight the fungus. The money comes in part from the U.S. Government, and part from private donors.

The World Coffee Research Program will take plants that have been proven to be more resistant to the fungus and eventually cross-breed them with higher-quality plants. The end result will be a plant that's less likely to be impacted by the fungus, and also makes a great-tasting cup of coffee.

"Our primary area of location that we're going to be working with is Central America," said Cole. "But we're also going to be addressing the issue in Peru, Ecuador, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic."

The cross-breeding could take years to complete, but the group also has a plan of attack with a more immediate effect.

"We immediately need to begin replanting in the most appropriate varieties so there's a harvest in the next year. The more long-term approach then is to develop these cross breeding and developing resistance for long-term resistance."

The group will also work to educate farmers, passing along information they may not have access to in the more remote parts of their countries. Information that could help their crops and their bottom line.

For more information on the World Coffee Research Program, click on the link added to this story.