Texas researchers are joining the U.S. government in stepping up efforts to help Central American farmers fight a devastating coffee disease -- and hold down the price of your morning cup.
Raj Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, on Monday announced a $5 million partnership with Texas A&M University's World Coffee Research center to try to eliminate the fungus.
Experts say the fungus called coffee rust has caused more than $1 billion in damage across Latin American region. The fungus is especially deadly to Arabica coffee, the bean that makes up most high-end, specialty coffees.
Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica have all been hard hit.
The chief concern is about the economic security of small farms abroad. If farmers lose their jobs, it increases hunger and poverty in the region and contributes to violence and drug trafficking.
Washington estimates that production could be down anywhere from 15 percent to 40 percent in coming years, and that those losses could mean as many as 500,000 people could lose their jobs.
The rust, called roya in Spanish, is a fungus that is highly contagious due to airborne fungal spores. It affects different varieties, but the Arabica beans are especially susceptible. Rainy weather worsens the problem.
"We don't see an end in sight anytime soon," said Leonardo Lombardini of Texas A&M's World Coffee Research.
USAID intends to work with Texas A&M to step up research on rust-resistant coffee varieties and help Latin America better monitor and respond to the fungus. The U.S. already collaborates with some of the coffee companies and other international organizations to finance replanting of different varieties of trees.
The project seeks primarily to rebuild livelihoods and food security for smallholder farmers whose income was ravaged by the rust epidemic. As such, research will focus on establishing a higher quality Central American coffee sector through plantation renovation with high quality, disease resistant coffee varieties and a constant pipeline of newer, higher performing varieties. …
Although much of the work will be done in Central America, two coffee biotechnologists will work as post-doctorates at the Texas A&M Institute for Biotechnology and Genomics under direction of Dr. Martin Dickman, in the department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. An innovative rust bio-control approach will also be executed with the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil and Kew Gardens in London. …
Current rust mitigation actions through fungicide spraying are essential to keep coffee production viable for 2014 and 2015. However, they do not provide the producer with a sustainable means of preventing future crises and corresponding production and profit losses without constant use of expensive fungicides.