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The Economist
Jul 26th 2014 | CHINCHINÁ | From the print edition
Timekeeper

coffee rust20140726_AMP001_0

How Colombia fought the fungus

WHEN Jesús María Aguirre saw his coffee bushes wither away, he knew that he had lost the sole source of income for his family. “We would go to collect coffee and would come back with our baskets nearly empty,” says the Colombian grower, recalling the pernicious effects of the “coffee rust” fungus, or roya.

The fungus stunts the growth of the fruit of arabica coffee plants. It infected about 40% of Colombia’s crop between 2008 and 2012. Production plunged from a high of 12.6m 60kg bags a year in 2007 to just 7.7m bags in 2012. As supply from Colombia shrank, international buyers turned to growers elsewhere.

What Mr Aguirre went through then is now the lot of farmers throughout Central America, the Dominican Republic, southern Mexico and Jamaica. Production there fell by 30% between 2011 and 2013 because of roya, reckons the International Coffee Organisation. USAID thinks it has caused $1 billion of economic damage in Latin America since 2012. This time Colombians are the ones taking advantage.

On his farm on the slopes of the country’s central mountain range, Mr Aguirre today presides over 1.5 hectares (4 acres) of healthy bushes plump with red berries. For yields to recover, he had to yank up fungus-prone bushes and plant a new variety that promised to fight off the blight. He was one of thousands of farmers who joined in a countrywide scheme run by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, which represents more than 500,000 independent growers. By June 2014 more than 3 billion bushes had been replanted.

Three-quarters of them were replaced with a roya-resistant variety known as Castillo, which had been developed in the labs of Cenicafé, the coffee federation’s research arm, after 13 years of selective breeding. Lindsey Bolger, head coffee buyer for Keurig Green Mountain, a roaster in the United States, said the industry was “on pins and needles” about whether the Castillo would work. It has. Colombia produced 11.5m bags in the 12 months to June 2014, up by 31% on the previous 12-month period, according to the coffee federation. Buyers are coming back.

Fernando Gast, Cenicafé’s director, says seeds of the Castillo coffee plants have been sent to Mexico, El Salvador and Costa Rica for evaluation. But he warns that Colombia’s success story is not directly transferable to Central America. The Castillo variety was created for Colombia’s needs and may not adapt to Central America’s soil and climate, he says.

Cenicafé’s 89 researchers cannot rest easy, either. They are working on a project to map the coffee genome. That should help them develop new varieties that will not only resist roya, which is continuously evolving, but will also be less susceptible to erratic weather. The search for a stronger brew is never over.

From the print edition: The Americas

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Environmental News Network

 

coffee-beans

July 30, 2013 06:05 AM

As if there were a need for even more evidence that global warming is a real, verifiable and evidenced threat, new research is showing Central and South American coffee production is drastically dropping because of higher global temperatures.
Add extreme rainfall totals to the mix and the result is rampant insects and damaged plants. If economics won’t convince people the earth is warming, perhaps interrupting their coffee supply will.

A traditionally reliable and adequate income, coffee farming is becoming a more challenging option. Where entire communities once depended on coffee to perpetuate their economies, farming families need to find alternative sources of income.
Last year, production dropped 70%. A fungus called Coffee Rust is killing of coffee plants quickly where lower temperatures once prevented the spread of the fungus. If ever there was a clear connection between global warming and the declining of production and community stability.
Beans from the area that is seeing the most dramatic trouble produce 16% of Columbian coffee, and command high prices in specialty coffees. Don’t think that insulates you generic brand coffee drinkers. The entire supply chain is cross-pollinated (no pun intended) and will result in higher prices across the spectrum of quality.
Article continues: http://globalwarmingisreal.com/2011/04/05/coffee-production-and-climate-change/

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From: Carrie Khan, NPR
Published July 28, 2014 07:32 AM

Outside the northern Guatemalan town of Olopa, near the Honduran border, farmer Edwin Fernando Diaz Viera stands in the middle of his tiny coffee field. He says it was his lifelong dream to own a farm here. The area is renowned for producing some of the world’s richest Arabica, the smooth-tasting beans beloved by specialty coffee brewers.

“My farm was beautiful, it was big,” he says.

But then, a plant fungus called coffee rust, or roya in Spanish, hit his crop.

“Coffee rust appeared and wiped out everything,” he says.

But then, a plant fungus called coffee rust, or roya in Spanish, hit his crop.
“Coffee rust appeared and wiped out everything,” he says.
That was in 2012, and it was Diaz Viera’s first crop. The rust took it all. The fungus roared over the hillsides, covered the valleys and clung to the slopes of Guatemala’s shady volcanoes.
The fungus has spread through Central America at an alarming rate, causing crop losses of more than a billion dollars. And it is leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed in its wake.
In El Salvador, nearly three quarters of all coffee trees are infected with the fungus; in Costa Rica more than 60 percent are infected. And in Guatemala, coffee rust now covers 70 percent of the crop, resulting in the loss of at least 100,000 jobs and a 15 percent drop in coffee output over the last two years.

Read more at NPR.

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Four million people in Central America and southern Mexico rely on coffee for their living, and coffee rust is a major threat. Credit Janet Jarman for The New York Times

INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/06/business/international/fungus-cripples-coffee-production-across-central-america.html?_r=0

A Coffee Crop Withers
Fungus Cripples Coffee Production Across Central America
By ELISABETH MALKINMAY 5, 2014

SAN LUCAS TOLIMÁN, Guatemala — When coffee rust attacked the farms clinging to the volcanic slopes above this Mayan town, the disease was unsparing, reducing mountainside rows of coffee trees to lattices of gray twigs.

During last year’s harvest, Román Lec, who grows coffee on a few acres here, lost half his crop. This year, he borrowed about $2,000 for fertilizer and fungicide to protect the plants, as he did last year. But the disease returned and he lost even more.

“There are nights when you cannot sleep, thinking how to pay back the money,” said Mr. Lec, 65.

A plant-choking fungus called coffee rust, or la roya, has swept across Central America, withering trees and slashing production everywhere. As exports have plunged over the last two years, the effects have rippled through the local economies.

Big farmers hire fewer workers to pick the ripe coffee cherries that enclose the beans. Smaller farmers go into debt and sell livestock or tools to make up for the lost income. Sales fall at local merchants. Teenagers leave school to work on the farm because their parents can no longer hire outside help. At the very end of the chain are the landless migrant workers who earn just a few dollars a day.

The Declining Coffee Harvest
A fungus called “coffee rust” has caused declining harvests of Guatemalan coffee in the last two years. Luis Antonio, a coffee bean farmer, says the spread of the fungus is threatening his livelihood.

“If you frame this in terms of everyone that is connected to the economics of coffee, it’s a very serious problem,” said Roberto de Michele, a specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank who is based in Guatemala City.

The coffee rust has spread far and fast, driven by higher temperatures in the region that have allowed the fungus to thrive at higher altitudes. Many experts say climate change is largely to blame for the shifting weather patterns.

The economics of the business have added to the farmers’ plight. After years of low coffee prices, smaller farmers could not afford to replace aging coffee plants, which have proved more vulnerable to the rust’s attack.

“There was nothing to hold it back because the farms were in very poor shape,” said Maja Wallengren, a coffee expert based in Mexico.

The trouble here is just one of several factors that are pushing up prices in the global commodity market, increases that may carry over to supermarket shelves and the specialty coffee houses that sell the high-grade arabica coffee for which Central America is known. Market prices have risen 70 to 80 percent since November, driven mostly by drought in Brazil, the world’s largest producer.

In Central America, the pain is acute. Four million people there and in southern Mexico rely on coffee for their living, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Twenty percent of the half-million jobs in Guatemala directly tied to the crop have already disappeared, estimated Nils Leporowski, the president of Anacafé, the country’s coffee board.

The rust outbreak has pushed many families to the edge of survival.

Nicolás Leja, in Guatemala, has lost as much as 60 percent of his production over the last two years. “The coffee income is very important,” he said. “It pays for corn and beans.”
“Roya has exposed the depth of the social and economic problems in terms of people’s vulnerability to the market and to climate change,” said Peter Loach, the Guatemala director of Mercy Corps, an aid agency. “What makes it different and complicated is that it’s a slow-onset natural disaster over two to three years.”

Even in good years, José Obispo Tax Talé, 34, had to scrimp to feed his eight children. In the past, his work as a day laborer on coffee farms would give him just enough money to rent land, buy fertilizer and grow corn for food.

Since the coffee rust hit, farmers are hiring fewer workers and paying less. So Mr. Tax had to borrow about $1,300 to grow corn. “Sometimes, you get desperate,” he said. “You want to work, but there is none.”

This year, the lean season, when food supplies run out for the poorest farmers, started two months early, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a monitoring service, because of falling coffee earnings and reduced corn yields over the last couple of years. Forecasts of irregular rainfall this summer raise additional concern.

“Year after year, these families are confronted by layers of vulnerability,” said Anne Valand of the World Food Programme, who estimated that as many as 300,000 Guatemalans could need emergency food aid later this year. “Bit by bit, the layers are becoming thinner.”

As the coffee rust has taken hold, farmers have been spending much of their time and money trying to fight the disease by spraying fungicide, replacing or cutting back old plants, and managing the shade trees that filter sunlight and appear to reduce the spread of the rust.

“People are scared of the roya,” said Nicolás Leja, who farms about seven acres in plots in San Antonio Palopó, a nearby municipality. He pruned his trees and sprayed fungicide, but it proved futile. He has lost as much as 60 percent of his production over the last two years.

Instead of hiring four workers for the harvest as he usually does, he relied on extra labor from his 18-year-old son, who put off plans to study medicine.

The changing fortunes of Guatemala’s small farmers raise the question of whether some of them should continue to grow coffee at all or instead should switch to food crops. Some say they could not make the change even if they wanted to.

“Beans and corn don’t grow well here,” Mr. Leja said, pointing at the steep hillside. “The coffee income is very important. It pays for corn and beans.”

The latest epidemic of coffee rust began in Central America three years ago. It spread rapidly last year, prompting most governments to declare states of emergency. Last year’s harvest fell 15 percent in Guatemala, and neighboring countries had losses as big and even bigger. Export figures suggest that Guatemala’s harvest this year has fallen an additional 10 percent.

Nobody has escaped. Guillermo Ríos, a midsize producer who grows coffee on 37 acres near the Mexican border in Huehuetenango, said he had sprayed fungicide four times and managed to limit the outbreak to just 10 percent of the plantation.

“My priority is to rescue what I invested,” he said in a telephone interview. But his profit was minimal, and the higher costs have halted his plans to add plants on additional land he owns. He will hire fewer workers than he expected.

While rust hit Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, the outbreaks were contained at lower altitudes. This rust outbreak has advanced to the highest altitudes, including the steep slopes here around Lake Atitlán. Rising temperatures and extreme weather, like flooding, have encouraged roya’s spread, said Ana R. Ríos, a climate change specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

With the changing conditions, the industry is intensifying efforts to breed varieties that are resistant to rust and heat stress while maintaining their quality. But the research is only beginning, and it may take 25 or 30 years before resistant hybrids reach farmers, said Leonardo Lombardini, the deputy director of World Coffee Research at Texas A&M University.

“The problem is that farmers are struggling and also the climate is changing rapidly,” Mr. Lombardini said. “The window of climate conditions for arabica is relatively narrow.”

Researchers are also growing plants from seeds collected all over the world and sending them to different countries for field trials to see where they thrive. That should give farmers who do not have much money to invest some assurances that when they replace their old trees, the new ones will be productive.

In the meantime, the priority is returning the farms to health.

Guatemala’s agriculture ministry provided small farmers with fungicide last year, although many complained that it reached them too late or that it was not enough. Others simply sold it. The government has increased the amount of money in a fund to provide low-interest loans to $100 million and extended it to 2026. The fund had only $28 million when the measure was approved last fall.

“The coffee here is positioned for its quality like the wines of France,” said José Sebastián Marcucci, Guatemala’s vice minister of agriculture. “The majority of coffee comes from the small producers. I hope that they can be motivated.”

With help from Anacafé, the government is showing farmers how to prune and replace their trees. They also plant beans and vegetables between the coffee seedlings to provide food while they wait three years for them to start producing.

More and more farmers are listening. Servando Santos, 56, the manager at the San Miguel Integrated Agricultural Cooperative in Tzampetey, said he fought off the rust by spraying fungicide, using fertilizer and controlling the shade over his plants. “You have to adapt to the roya,” he said. “You have to make friends with it.”

Mike McDonald contributed reporting from Guatemala City.

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