If you landed in Bogota in the 1960s, one of the first things you would have probably seen outside the airport was a giant billboard. In a slightly menacing tone, it said: “Coffee rust is the enemy. Don’t bring plant materials from abroad”.
It was one of the first warnings about a foe that has been threatening Colombia’s coffee trade ever since.
Coffee rust is a disease with the power to cripple, or even wipe out, the country’s national product, the base of one of its biggest industries, and one of its most important sources of foreign currency. Last year alone, its coffee exports were worth $2.4bn (£1.8bn), and was 7.7% of all goods the country sold overseas. That makes Colombia the third largest producer of coffee in the world. In other words, if rust takes hold there and global supply dwindles, it will affect the price of the coffee we drink everywhere.
That’s why for the past few decades, Colombia’s scientists have been engaged in a little-known battle with the disease, staged from a small laboratory deep inside the mountains of Colombia’s coffee axis.
The question is, can Colombian coffee’s distinct flavours survive intact?