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The coffee that the caterer had set down alongside some guava-filled pastries was tepid and bitter, with top notes of chlorine. Several of the guests would not touch it, no matter how much they craved caffeine. Standing on a narrow balcony, facing the scrubby hills of Turrialba, Costa Rica, they sipped water or pineapple juice instead. They were entitled to a little coffee snobbery. The roughly 20 people gathered this past March at CATIE, an agricultural university, to discuss the uncertain future of Central American coffee included leading experts on humanity's most beloved beverage.
They had convened to discuss a serious threat: coffee rust, or roya, as it is known in Spanish. The rust is a fungus that infects the plants' leaves, making them unable to absorb the sunlight they need to survive. It has ravaged the region's crop over the past few years, afflicting approximately half of the one million acres planted across Central America and slashing production by about 20 percent in 2012 compared with 2011.