The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on Monday announced a $5 million partnership with Texas A&M University’s World Coffee Research to eliminate coffee rust (known as “roya” in Spanish), a plant disease that has caused severe damage to Central America’s coffee industry over the past two years.
The partnership, according to a USAIS press release, will “support research on rust-resistant coffee varieties, address the shortage of disease-resistant coffee seedlings, and expand the capability of the region’s coffee institutions to monitor and respond to coffee rust.”
Central America’s smallholder farmers grow the bulk of the region’s specialty coffee, a lucrative commodity that is in increasingly high demand in the United States and around the world. With USAID’s investment, research will focus on establishing a more resilient and higher quality regional coffee sector. — USAID
“Coffee rust threatens more than your morning coffee—it affects jobs, businesses, and the security of millions across the Americas,” said USAID’s Associate Administrator Mark Feierstein. “We must tackle this outbreak to ensure farmers and laborers have stable incomes, don’t start growing illicit crops, or be forced to migrate because they can no longer support their families. This partnership will tap innovative solutions to address the immediate and long-term impacts of coffee rust and help this key agriculture sector rebound.”
The current coffee rust outbreak is the worst in Latin America’s history. Reasons for current outbreak are varied, but USAID plant experts say that climate change is exacerbating the crisis. It is estimated that production will fall by as much as 15-40% in the coming years, which could trigger job losses exceeding 500,000. Decreased production may lead to decreases in incomes for smallholder farmers, making it harder to afford the fungicides and plant maintenance necessary to control the disease. The negative impacts of coffee rust go beyond the farmers and businesses that support the industry—seasonal laborers and their families are losing an import source of income. —USAID
Overall, USAID says its is investing $14 million in the fight against coffee rust.
In Nicaragua, where coffee production employs half a million people in the countryside, the coffee rust epidemic was devastating to last year’s harvest. According to official government statistics, Nicaraguan coffee exports plummeted 21% last year, representing losses of $170 million. Overall, coffee went from being Nicaragua’s top export product in 2012 to third (behind gold and beef) in 2013.
Similar losses are reported in other Central American countries.
The Nicaraguan Coffee Growers Union said last year that Nicaragua needs to invest $12 million to prevent the spread of the coffee rust fungus, and up to $150 million to fully replant damaged coffee plants in the coming years. The rust fungus has mostly affected coffee grown in the lowlands; high-altitude coffee production is less affected.
The Sandinista government, which was heavily criticized for ignoring the problem for the first year of the coffee-rust plague, eventually promised aid to farmers. But coffee producers claim the government has not followed through on its promises.