Grant Reinvigorates Research into Coffee Leaf Disease

The global fight against coffee leaf rust got a major boost from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which issued a four-year, $6m grant for research. 

While the proposal and subsequent research are specifically targeted for coffee sectors in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, researchers believe some of the work might benefit coffee producers from all over the world combating the disease. 

The bane of the coffee sector since the 1800s, coffee leaf rust is a fast-spreading, leaf-killing disease caused by a fungus that usually results in 70 percent or more crop loss in infected plots. After impairing coffee land throughout Mexico, Central America and South America early in 2012 and causing devasting losses to farmers, the disease was discovered in Hawaii for the first time last year. 

Part of a $243m package of new USDA grants to benefit specialty crops in the US, the new leaf rust grant of just over $6m was formally issued to the Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council (SHAC). It is going towards an association of researchers at institutes including the USDA-ARS Tropical Agriculture Research Station in Puerto Rico, the University of Hawaii, the University of Puerto Rico, Purdue University and Michigan State University. 

Objectives for the research project scheduled to run to September 2025 include field trials of rust-resistant coffee varieties in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, researching management options for existing plants, identifying fungicides or biological control methods, economic analyses of US-based coffee production, and genomic research designed to potentially benefit the global coffee industry. 

“It is incredible and important to see the US stepping up investment for research on coffee’s most devastating disease,” Jennifer “Vern” Long, CEO of the nonprofit World Coffee Research, which is involved in some of the research projects, said.

The grant application identified approximately 1,470 coffee farmers in Hawaii and 2,300 coffee farmers in Puerto Rico, where coffee leaf rust has been present since at least 1989.