In the United States, a four-year US$6 million grant has been issued to support research into addressing the coffee leaf rust (CLR) disease that is threatening coffee farmers in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
The impact of this research, however, is expected to extend beyond US farmers to help the global coffee community combat CLR.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) issued this grant which will support a consortium led by the Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council (SHAC).
The five main objectives of the grant include field trials of rust-resistant varieties, surveying spread and identifying field management options for farmers to use to protect existing coffee trees, identifying fungicides or biological control methods to combat CLR, and economic analyses of U.S.-grown coffee from both a growing and a selling perspective.
Lastly, it will also expand genomic research to assist the global coffee industry in understanding and combating the fungus.
“SHAC is pleased to lead this consortium grant, which brings together some of the brightest researchers from around the country,” says Suzanne Shriner, Executive Director of SHAC and coffee farmer.
The grant will also fund CLR expert Professor Catherine Aime of Purdue University. She will study the sequencing and assembly of the CLR (H. vastatrix) genome, development of methods for genetically identifying rust races, and identification of genes associated with virulence.
It is hoped these advances could lead to new and cheaper methods of testing for different varieties of CLR, innovations in managing rust, and breeding for rust resistance.
World Coffee Research, who will not be receiving direct funding, applauds this announcement.
“Race typing, in particular, is essential for optimally deploying rust-resistant varieties in the field. Incredibly, scientists still don’t know the mechanism that confers rust resistance to resistant varietals,” says World Coffee Research.
“Understanding this could dramatically change prospects for breeding new resistant varieties in the future.”
Short-term the grant will provide funding to test existing rust-resistant varieties in Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Both will join the WCR International Multilocation Variety Trial (IMLVT) which will be managed by the USDA.
As with other countries participating in the IMLVT network, local scientists, growers, and industry members will jointly evaluate the agronomic and quality performance of varieties. Trial participants can negotiate for access to conduct additional research and the possible commercialisation of promising varieties.
“It is incredible and important to see the US stepping up investment for research on coffee’s most devastating disease,” says Jennifer “Vern” Long, CEO of World Coffee Research.
“This work will benefit not only Hawaiian and Puerto Rican growers, but will lead to insights and innovations that impact coffee farmers everywhere.”
This coordinated research funding by the NIFA grant will be conducted by various entities, including the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Daniel K. Inouye U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center (DKI-US-PBARC), the ARS Tropical Agriculture Research Station (TARS) in Puerto Rico, University of Hawaii, University of Puerto Rico, as well as Purdue University and Michigan State University.
“Testing these international varieties gives our growers a leg up on finding long-term solutions that work in the field,” says Shriner of SHAC. “And in the immediate term, applied research will help maintain non-resistant tree health and support the agricultural economies of our islands.”
The discovery of CLR in October 2020 in the Maui Island has encouraged US coffee growers to advocate for this increased funding. Until 2020, CLR was present in every coffee-growing region except Hawaii. If left unchecked, the fungus can cause a decrease of more than 70 per cent of yield.
“Over the past year our more than 1400 coffee growers in Hawaii have been dealing with one of the greatest threats to their industry,” says Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono.
“This funding will help bring together leading experts in coffee research to protect one of our most iconic crops, so coffee can continue contributing to our local economy and culture.”
For more information, visit worldcoffeeresearch.org