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Coffee Is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust

Coffee Is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust

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Coffee Is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust

443 pages
4 heures
Oct 2, 2019


The global coffee industry, which fuels the livelihoods of farmers, entrepreneurs, and consumers around the world, rests on fragile ecological foundations. In Coffee Is Not Forever, Stuart McCook explores the transnational story of this essential crop through a history of one of its most devastating diseases, the coffee leaf rust. He deftly synthesizes agricultural, social, and economic histories with plant genetics and plant pathology to investigate the increasing interdependence of the world’s coffee-producing zones. In the process, he illuminates the progress and prognosis of the challenges—especially climate change—that pose an existential threat to a crop that global consumers often take for granted. And finally, in putting a tropical plant disease at the forefront, he has crafted the first truly global environmental history of coffee, pushing its study and the discipline in bold new directions.

Oct 2, 2019

À propos de l'auteur

Stuart McCook is professor of history at the University of Guelph. His research focuses on the environmental history of tropical crops and commodities. He is also the author of States of Nature: Science, Agriculture, and Environment in the Spanish Caribbean, 1760–1940.

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Coffee Is Not Forever: A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust

Coffee Is Not Forever

A Global History of the Coffee Leaf Rust

Stuart McCook



Ohio University Press, Athens, Ohio 45701


© 2019 by Ohio University Press

All rights reserved

To obtain permission to quote, reprint, or otherwise reproduce or distribute material from Ohio University Press publications, please contact our rights and permissions department at (740) 593-1154 or (740) 593-4536 (fax).

Printed in the United States of America

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: McCook, Stuart George, 1965- author.

Title: Coffee is not forever : a global history of the coffee leaf rust / Stuart McCook.

Other titles: Ohio University Press series in ecology and history.

Description: Athens, Ohio : Ohio University Press, 2019. | Series: Ohio University Press series in ecology and history | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2019026882 | ISBN 9780821423868 (hardback) | ISBN 9780821423875 (paperback) | ISBN 9780821446843 (pdf)

Subjects: LCSH: Hemileia vastatrix. | Coffee rust disease--History. | Coffee rust disease--Environmental aspects.

Classification: LCC SB608.C6 .M33 2019 | DDC 663/.93--dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019026882

For Lucía, my light.





DURING THE late 1990s, when I was doing research on the agricultural sciences in Latin America, I noticed a curious pattern in my primary sources. In the nineteenth century, most of the world’s tropical crops were struck by a series of devastating crop diseases. Many of these diseases were global, crossing oceans and continents. I started to wonder what had caused these epidemics; biologically, neither the pathogens nor the host plants had much in common. The one thing they did have in common was that all the host plants were tropical commodities. It seemed likely that the plants’ lives as global commodities had contributed to the outbreaks of these global epidemics. I set out to write a global and comparative history of the most important of these epidemics: the South American leaf blight of rubber, the Panama disease of the banana, the mosaic disease of sugarcane, the witches’ broom of cacao, and the coffee leaf rust.

For several years I worked on pieces of this story, but I struggled to find an effective way of organizing the narrative. I had conversations with many other historians about this. One of the people I spoke to was Jim Webb, who, in addition to being an accomplished historian, is also a keen and thoughtful listener. Over pints at a pub in Kew, he suggested that I focus on just one of these diseases, which would allow me explore the issues that interested me in much greater detail. And he encouraged me to focus on the coffee leaf rust. I took his advice, and have never looked back.

This book is a biography of a global crop disease, and a global environmental history of coffee as seen through the lens of the disease. My approach to this global history reflects what Lynn Hunt has described as global history from the ground up. The essential methodology is simple—at least in theory. I followed the fungus on its long journey from the forests of Africa out across the global coffeelands, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. From the fungus, I moved outward to consider the broader forces that moved it around the world and shaped the vulnerability of coffee ecosystems to the rust at particular moments in time. I explore how farmers and farming communities have responded to the rust and how, if at all, they learned to coexist with it. I have been particularly interested in the role of scientists and scientific institutions that have, with varying degrees of success, tried to help farmers adapt to the rust.

Writing a global environmental history involves inevitable compromises. The historian John McNeill has complained (only half-jokingly, I’m sure) about how he suffered from inadequate research anxiety syndrome (IRAS) as he worked on his magisterial environmental history of the twentieth-century world. Although my project is more modest than his, I confess to being a fellow sufferer of IRAS. The primary and secondary literature on coffee and the coffee rust is vast, which is both a blessing and a curse. Like coffee itself, the sources are distributed widely across the globe, and they are written in four main languages: English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, with some additional important works in Dutch and German. With a project of this scale, it is simply impossible to be either definitive or encyclopedic. In many instances, I have had to be ruthlessly selective. Given the project’s scope, I decided to work mostly with the secondary and published primary literature, although I did make a few forays into select archives. I have tried to give readers a sense of the world of coffee in each place that I describe, and also the evolving scientific ideas about the rust and coffee farming. But many richer, local histories of the rust remain to be told in fuller detail.

At the same time, a global approach offers insights that would not be as clear otherwise. In particular, writing the history of the rust has revealed a largely hidden horizontal history of coffee, which reveals the complex and constant global circulation of plants, pathogens, people, and technologies across the world’s coffeelands. This disease-centered global history offers a new approach to thinking about coffee itself. Much of the academic and popular writing on coffee focuses on arabica coffee, especially the high-quality arabicas produced for the specialty market. The story of the rust also sheds light on the entwined histories of commodity arabica, of the oft-despised robusta coffee, and of ephemeral coffees such as Liberian coffee, and it gives us a glimpse of the dozens of wild coffee species found in forests across tropical Africa.

The story of the rust will also, I hope, offer some insights about climate change. It is, at its heart, a story of how farming communities across the Global South prepared for and responded to a sudden and sometimes catastrophic change in their environment. We can learn from some of their successes and failures. But the rust is more than just a precursor to climate change; its own history has recently been transformed by climate change. As I write these words in 2019, the rust’s history looks markedly different from how it did when I began the project in 2004. Then, a number of people told me that the history of the rust was basically over. The rust remained a problem, but it had effectively been domesticated. It was just another disease that was no longer a major agent of change. Farmers knew how to cope with it. I imagined that my story would end there. But starting in 2007, a series of severe rust outbreaks swept first through Colombia and later through the Andes, Central America, and the Caribbean. This outbreak is literally a new chapter in the rust’s history; it is now clear that this history is far from over. These new outbreaks, triggered by climate change and a series of political and economic crises, mark the beginning of a new phase in the story of the rust—and of the global coffee industry.


THIS BOOK has been a long time in the making, and over the years I have accrued many debts. Jim Webb first pointed me toward coffee rust as a subject, and I have never looked back. Steven Topik and Jonathan Coulis provided vital feedback on early chapter drafts, helping me clarify my thinking. Jacques Avelino has patiently helped me make sense of coffee rust science. Audra Wolfe gave invaluable editorial suggestions on the first full draft of the manuscript. I have been fortunate to have excellent research assistants, including Lara Andrews, Jonathan Coulis, Wainer Coto Cedeño, Jessica Dionne, Juan Ignacio Arboleda, Kuusta Laird, Miguel Marín, Gustavo Lemos, Lisa Maldonado, and Brody Richardson.

The work has been enriched by conversations and email exchanges with historians, scientists, and other people involved in the worlds of coffee and tropical commodities, including Katey Anderson, Francisco Anzueto, Peter Baker, William Clarence-Smith, Patrick Chassé, Claiton da Silva, Harry Evans, Fabio Faria Mendes, Leida Fernández Prieto, Andrés Guhl, Jonathan Harwood, Carlos Hernández Rodríguez, Jó Klanovicz, Jeff Koehler, John McNeill, Jonathan Morris, Miguel Mundstock de Carvalho, Hanna Neuschwander, Philip Pauly, Paul Peterson, Wilson Picado, Robert Rice, Fabio Rodríguez Prieto, Corey Ross, Mario Samper Kutschbach, Ellen Sancho Barrantes, Karen-Beth Scholthof, Shawn Steiman, Robert Thurston, Frank Uekötter, Vitor Várzea, John Vandermeer, and Jim Waller.

I am sincerely grateful for the friendship, the example, and the sharp critical eyes of my fellow environmental historians, including Eve Buckley, Chris Boyer, Micheline Cariño Olvera, Kate Christen, Greg Cushman, Nicolás Cuvi, Sandro Dutra e Silva, Sterling Evans, Reinaldo Funes, Stefania Gallini, Regina Horta Duarte, Claudia Leal, Casey Lurtz, Heather McCrea, José Pádua, Megan Raby, Myrna Santiago, Lise Sedrez, John Soluri (again), Paul Sutter, Tom Rogers, Shawn van Ausdal, Jeremy Vetter, Emily Wakild, Robert Wilcox, and Gustavo Zarrilli. My colleagues at the University of Guelph offered valuable comments on early drafts of several chapters. Thanks especially to Tara Abraham, Catherine Carstairs, Alan Gordon, Matthew Hayday, Kris Inwood, Sofie Lachapelle, Doug McCalla, Susan Nance, Karen Racine, and Norman Smith.

McGill University’s history department offered me an institutional home for two research semesters. During my time there, I had valuable conversations about coffee, commodities, and history with Brian Cowan, Catherine LeGrand, and Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert. Ben Forest, Juliet Johnson, and Eleanor Forest gave our family a pied-à-terre in Montreal, and so much more beyond that (including delightful company, excellent wine, and not-so-excellent dad jokes). Thanks to Ben and Juliet for your feedback and encouragement as I worked through the final stages of the manuscript.

I am also grateful for the suggestions offered to me by participants in seminars and workshop papers I presented at Cambridge University, the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (Spain), the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Brazil), McGill University, the Miami University of Ohio, the Rachel Carson Center at the University of Munich, Rutgers University, the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica, the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos (Peru), the Universidade Estadual do Oeste do Paraná (Brazil), the Universidade Federal da Fronteira Sul (Brazil), the University of Edinburgh, the University of Guelph, the University of Kansas, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Pennsylvania.

I learned a tremendous amount about the rust and the world of coffee at several workshops that brought together academics and people in the coffee trade, including the Workshop on the Moral, Economic, and Social Life of Coffee at the Miami University of Ohio in 2008; East Coast Coffee Madness in Montreal in 2016; and especially Sustainable Harvest’s Let’s Talk Roya workshop in El Salvador in 2013. This workshop included a field trip to Café Pacas’s Finca El Talapo, where we could see the impacts of the rust firsthand. I am also grateful to the history department at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica for organizing a field trip to the Cafetalera Herbazú and the Finca Vista al Valle in Naranjo in 2016.

This work would have been much poorer without the help I received from librarians and archivists at the following organizations: ANACAFÉ (Guatemala); the Biblioteca Carlos Monge, Universidad de Costa Rica; the Biblioteca Conmemorativa Orton, CATIE (Costa Rica); the Biblioteca Nacional de Costa Rica; the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec; the British Library; CABI Bioscience (UK); CIFC (Portugal); ICAFÉ (Costa Rica); the International Coffee Organization; the Library and Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; the Linnean Society, London; the McGill University Library; the National Archives (UK); the Natural History Museum (UK); the North Carolina State University Libraries; and the Royal Commonwealth Society Library, Cambridge University. I am particularly grateful to the Interlibrary Loan staff at the University of Guelph, who for more than a decade have scoured the world’s libraries for obscure sources on my behalf.

During this book’s long gestation, important collections of primary sources from the nineteenth and early twentieth century have been digitized and placed online. These digital resources make the task of doing global history much easier and are a valuable complement to traditional libraries. For this project, I made extensive use of the Internet Archive’s Text Archive, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Gallica, the Biodiversity Heritage Library, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service’s Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN), and the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers’ Biblioteca Cenicafé.

The cartographer Marie Puddister turned my amateurish scrawls into the elegant maps found throughout the book. The biologist Angel Luis Viloria Petit offered his considerable talents as a natural history illustrator to depict the life cycle of the coffee leaf rust. Doña Rosa Maria Fernández kindly gave me permission to reproduce the delightful illustrations by her late husband, the cartoonist Hugo Díaz Jiménez; the journalist Carlos Morales provided vital help in coordinating these permissions. I thank the editors of the Annals of Botany, the British Library; the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew; the Tropenmuseum; and World Coffee Research for permission to reproduce images in this book. I have previously explored some of the ideas that inform this book in articles published in the Journal of Global History, Phytopathology, the Revista de historia (Costa Rica), and Varia historia (Brazil), as well as a chapter in the edited collection Knowing Global Environments, edited by Jeremy Vetter and published by Rutgers University Press. They are reprinted with permission, where permission was necessary.

The staff at Ohio University Press have been consistently supportive and patient. Thanks to Nancy Basmajian, Gillian Berchowitz, Rick Huard, Samara Rafert, Sally Welch, and the whole team at the press who helped turn this project into a reality. Beth Pratt designed the striking cover, which I am sure will catch people’s attention and invite them to take a look inside the book. Alice White carefully copyedited the manuscript, giving it a vital final polish. Robert Kern skillfully guided the complex process of transforming my raw manuscript into the book you have before you.

This research was supported by a generous Standard Research Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, which gave me the time and resources necessary to conduct the initial research.

Much of this book was, appropriately enough, composed in cafés. In Guelph, the Red Brick Café and Planet Bean provided congenial writing environments. Much of the book was drafted and revised at the Brûlerie St. Denis on Rue St. Denis in Montreal, which for the price of a coffee allowed me to occupy the same table every morning, day after day, month after month. I could look up from my computer and see chalkboards listing coffees from the countries that I was writing about at that moment. Thanks especially to Stacey Cote-Jacques for the delicious lattés that fueled my muses, and for the conversations about coffee and origins.

During the years I worked on this project, I lost a number of people close to me. Between 2006 and 2010, my parents Buff and Monica McCook and my brother Douglas McCook passed away. My parents were deeply committed to ensuring that their children had a good education, a commitment that is the foundation of my life as a historian. My grandmothers Edith McCook and Marion Sullivan also passed away during these years; they each leave me with fond memories of lively conversations, and so much more. My uncle Brian Blomme passed away in 2016; I miss his quiet sense of humor and his deep commitment to environmental issues. My father-in-law, Angel Antonio Viloria, who loved reading and had a boundless curiosity about the world around him, died just a few weeks before I submitted the final manuscript. I regret that they are not here to celebrate its completion.

I would like to give a warm thanks to my families by birth and marriage in Canada and Venezuela. My extended Guelph family—my sister Sue McCook and brother-in-law Robert Chin and their children Cameron, Becca, and Gabby—helped in many ways. In the final weeks of the project, we adopted a cat named Luna, who helped keep things in perspective by reminding me that (mysteriously) some creatures don’t care at all about the history of coffee, or the coffee rust. Alicia Viloria-Petit has been both a literal and metaphorical companion on this project’s long journey; her love and support have made it possible. Our daughter Lucía was born while this project was in progress, and happily has inherited her parents’ love of travel. She now knows far more about the coffee commodity chain than the average Canadian eleven-year-old. Without Lucía, the book would have been finished much more quickly, but my life would have been infinitely poorer. Lucía brings me joy every single day; in return, I dedicate this book to her.

Abbreviations and Acronyms


The Devourer of Dreams

IT CAME as a surprise: a familiar nuisance suddenly turned an unfamiliar catastrophe. Over several seasons, coffee farmers from Peru to Mexico saw more and more yellow spots appear on the leaves of their trees. In previous seasons, the rust might have caused the occasional spot, but nothing serious. Now, however, leaves engulfed with lesions fell to the ground, leaving skeletal trees alive but entirely defoliated. The disease moved into highland areas that had previously escaped the disease. In February 2013, Guatemala’s Prensa libre interviewed smallholders whose farms had been devastated by the rust. I never thought this would happen to me, said Mauricio Méndez, whose farm had escaped the first rust outbreak in the 1980s. A smallholder named Bartolo Chavajay could not contain his tears in the face of his rust-infested plot. The rust had destroyed Chavajay’s entire harvest—his only source of income. Without the income, he wondered how he would feed his family. Yet another farmer, Moisés Misa, worried that the disease would harm his coffee’s quality, reducing the price he would receive from buyers and lowering his modest income. Over several seasons, similar scenarios played out in thousands of farms across the Americas. The rust, wrote the Prensa libre, devoured the hopes of farmers. Even five years later some farmers—and some countries—are still struggling to rebuild their coffee farms.¹

This outbreak, now known as the Big Rust, was the latest episode in a much longer story. The coffee rust is caused by a fungus known scientifically as Hemileia vastatrix. It first entered the written record in 1869, when it was found on a remote coffee farm in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)—then the world’s third-largest coffee producer. A little more than a decade later, the rust had driven Ceylon’s coffee growers to abandon coffee. Between 1870 and 1990, the rust slowly made its way around the world’s coffeelands, first striking Asia and the Pacific, then Africa, and finally reaching Latin America’s vast coffeelands in 1970. By 1990, it had reached virtually every major coffee-growing region in the world except Hawaii. In some places, as in Ceylon, it was a catastrophe. The rust helped drive the collapse of coffee farming in Java, an island whose name remains synonymous with coffee. As the rust made its way across the globe, however, farmers and scientists gradually learned how to adapt their farms and farming practices to the disease. Farmers were supported by a complex network of national and international organizations. By the 1990s, it seemed that the rust was just another disease. Coffee communities had adapted to the rust, much the same way that communities around the world had adapted to the influenza virus. Like the flu, the rust could be a nuisance. But properly managed, it was nothing more than that—at least in theory.

Disease, Landscape, and Society

To understand the coffee rust’s tangled history, it is helpful to understand how crop epidemics work. The coffee leaf rust is much more than the fungus alone. The fungus is present in many coffee ecosystems; in some, the coffee plants have mild infections that never develop into full-blown, disruptive epidemics. So clearly the epidemic is much more than the pathogen. We need to look beyond the pathogen alone and ask, What makes the disease a disease? To answer that, we need to consider how the coffee rust fungus interacts with the rest of the coffee ecosystem. It is helpful to consider an epidemic as a system with three major elements: the pathogen (the fungus H. vastatrix), a susceptible host (in this case the coffee plant), and the appropriate environmental conditions (rainfall, temperature, sunshine, cropping patterns, etc.). These three elements—virulent pathogen, susceptible host, and environmental conditions—can be represented as a triangle (fig 1.1).²

Epidemics are only possible if all three elements are in place. Most obviously, if the pathogen is not present, there can be no outbreak. But while the fungus is necessary for an outbreak, it is not in itself sufficient to cause one. The fungus and the susceptible coffee plant may be present in an ecosystem, but environmental conditions—say, the temperature or the farm structure—may prevent the fungus from reproducing rapidly, so there is no outbreak. In still other cases, the fungus may be present and the environmental conditions may favor the disease, but the coffee cultivar is resistant to the rust, so there is no outbreak. Furthermore, none of the three elements is absolute; different strains of the fungus can be more or less virulent, and different coffee cultivars can be more or less resistant. The environmental conditions also favor the epidemic to a greater or lesser degree. We can use the disease triangle to understand how the host, pathogen, and environment interacted in each place to produce an outbreak.

Each of these three elements is not only biological, it is also historical. Each element changes over time, the product of interactions among human and natural forces. People have, by planting thousands or even millions of susceptible plants together, unintentionally created environments that favor rust outbreaks. They have unintentionally carried spores of the rust farther and faster than the rust would have traveled on its own, infecting coffee zones that had previously been free of the disease. As farmers and scientists learned more about how the disease worked, they manipulated the host, pathogen, and environment to limit the rust. They tried to contain the pathogen through quarantines and to kill it with chemicals. They have strengthened the host by breeding rust-resistant coffee varieties. They have altered the coffee ecosystem, in places, by reducing or eliminating shade trees (fig 1.2), hoping that exposing the coffee farm to full sun would inhibit the rust.

Figure 1.1. The disease triangle, showing how the pathogen, host, and environment interact to produce a disease outbreak.

The rust attacks the leaves of the coffee plant, but it harms the whole plant. A healthy coffee tree obtains most of its nutrition through its leaves, by photosynthesis. Nutrients allow the tree to produce new branches and buds, which in due course flower and develop into the fruit. In shaded forests, the coffee plants produce few flowers, and the leaves can provide more than enough nutrients to allow the fruit to develop properly. On the farm, farmers often manipulate the plant and the landscape to encourage the plant to produce more fruit. They reduce or eliminate shade, which encourages the plant to produce more flowers and, in turn, more fruit. They can also increase crop yields by pruning and manuring the trees. But they have to be careful not to ask too much of the tree, particularly the leaves. If the nutrition required by the fruit is greater than the tree can provide, the fruit may fail to develop properly; in some cases, the branches can become starved and die. So even in disease-free ecosystems, farmers have to ensure that they do not ask the tree for

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