To introduce Symposium’s series on coffee leaf rust, we knew we needed some deep background. What’s the history of coffee rust? What is its relationship with other rusts? How does it work, and spread? How does it compare with other agricultural pests?  And, most importantly, how might the coffee industry learn from the broader agricultural community in designing successful responses to pests?

We turned to the Symposium community and heard from former speaker John Vendeland, who told us: “You have to talk to Steve Savage.”  Dr. Savage is a plant pathologist by training (that’s a person who studies plant diseases), but after his formal education at Stanford University and U.C. Davis, he’s explored other disciplines in agriculture and worked with a variety of crops in many places. He now turns his attention towards demystifying agriculture, and promoting understanding of science. We reached out to Dr. Savage and he agreed to bring his considerable expertise and give us an overview of coffee rust’s place in the world of plant disease.

And what a wild ride. Beginning with a glimpse at Hemileia vastatrix, the fungus that brings us coffee rust, he immediately puts it in the context of other crop diseases and climate change. From there, it’s a grand tour of diseases and responses: a crash course in plant disease (including coffee rust), helping us understand what causes plant epidemics, what makes them worse, and how to fight them.

This talk marked the beginning of Sympoisum 2013’s crash course in plant biology and genetics; designed to make us smarter and more able to face the challenges of coffee development we face. It’s interesting and entertaining, sure, but it’s also critical watching for anyone who seeks to understand the realities of defending coffee agriculture in the 21st century.