According to a study led by Rutgers University, the socio-economic effects of COVID-19 might pose a risk to the coffee industry and lead to another production crisis. Coffee is one of the most widely traded agricultural products, supporting millions of lives, so disruption in the industry could have severe implications.

The researchers posit that the risk could materialise as a result of diseases such as coffee leaf rust resurging as a result of poor crop maintenance, directly related to the social impact COVID-19 is having on producers.

The global coffee industry has gone through countless issues in the past, including extreme climate change, market price volatilities, diseases and pests. The most severe coffee plant disease is coffee leaf rust, a fungal disease that has affected multiple countries’ coffee sectors in the past decade.

The study — which included researchers from various universities like the University of Arizona, the University of Hawaii at Hilo, Santa Clara University, CIRAD, Purdue University West Lafayette’s and the University of Exeter — reviewed the past outbreaks of this disease and concluded that the pattern of that epidemic is similar to the current situation with COVID-19, in the sense of its socio-economic impact. 

During past outbreaks of coffee leaf rust, there had been a lack of investment in coffee farms due to poor crops and reduced crop care. With the global pandemic’s restrictions on society, including lockdowns, international border control and unemployment, there is a possibility of the same reduction in the investment of crop management, leading to similar conditions of the coffee leaf rust epidemics.

Lead author and assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers-New Brunswick, Kevin Rhiney, stated:

Our paper shows that coffee leaf rust outbreaks are complex socio-economic phenomena and that managing the disease also involves a blend of scientific and social solutions.

Rhiney went to say “There is no ‘magic bullet’ that will simply make this problem disappear. Addressing coffee leaf rust involves more than just getting outbreaks under control; it also involves safeguarding farmers’ livelihoods in order to build resilience to future shocks.”

Both the situation with coffee leaf rust and COVID-19 reflects the systemic flaw of our socio-economic system, which includes inequality. To have a healthy global system, the vulnerable areas ought to be recognised and valued, from labour and small-scale producers to overlooked yet essential production processes and the general ecosystems. The status quo has to be challenged.

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