Moises Castillo/AP

US to help combat coffee disease in Central America

Washington is worried a fungus could cost 500,000 jobs, leading to increased violence, drug trafficking across region

The U.S. government is stepping up efforts to help Central American farmers fight a devastating coffee disease called coffee rust caused over $1 billion in damage across the region.

The fungus is especially deadly to Arabica coffee, the bean that makes up most of the high-end, specialty coffees. Its impact has already raised the price of those coffees in the United States and the American government worries that the disease could put farmers out of work — increasing hunger and poverty and contributing to violence and drug trafficking.

“We are concerned because we know coffee rust is already causing massive amounts of devastation,” said Raj Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

On Monday, Shah was expected to announce a $5m partnership with Texas A&M University’s World Coffee Research center to try to eliminate the fungus.

The government’s chief concern is about the economic security of these small farms abroad. If farmers lose their jobs, drug trafficking and related violence could increase.

Washington has estimated that production could drop from 15 percent to 40 percent in the near future if the disease is left unchecked. That translates to as many as 500,000 people losing their jobs.

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica are the countries that have been hardest hit by the fungus.

The rust, called “roya” in Spanish, is a fungus that is highly contagious due to airborne fungal spores. 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 effort is part of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future program, which aims to rid the world of extreme poverty through agricultural development and improved nutrition.

While the effort has helped hungry children around the globe, “we’re at risk of backtracking because of coffee rust,” Shah said.

Most of the richer, more expensive coffees consumed in the United States are from small, high-altitude farms in Central America. So far, major U.S. coffee companies have been able to find enough supply to avoid price increases. But some smaller outfits already have seen higher prices, said Ric Rhinehart of the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

Rhinehart said the worst-case scenario is that consumers eventually will pay “extraordinarily high prices for those coffees, if you can find them at all.”

He said some very specialized varieties from a single origin — Guatemalan antigua coffees, for example — have been much harder to source. If the problem continues, he says, some small coffee companies either will raise prices or use blends that are easier to find, decreasing the quality of the coffee.

Larger companies such as Starbucks and Keurig Green Mountain have multiple suppliers across the region and say they have, so far, been able to source enough coffee.

The Associated Press

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