Jul 18, 2013

    Next year's crops may fare even worse

    COFFEE-LEAF rust, or "la roya", appears as powdery orange spores on the underside of infected leaves, eventually causing them to fall off, either killing or significantly weakening the tree, reducing yields and affecting bean quality.

    The virulent fungus has been spreading throughout the plantations of Central America, causing the worst outbreak since it appeared in 1976, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

    Sweeping across Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and other countries, it has destroyed 15 to 20 per cent of the 2012-13 harvest.

    Central America produces around one fifth of the world's arabica coffee, and much of its high-quality beans - with unique taste profiles - is grown at high altitudes.

    More troubling is the prediction that the fungus will have an even greater impact on next year's crops, said the International Coffee Organisation in a report.

    The blight will even take a toll over the long term as affected plants will take time to recover.

    Farmer Angel Molina has been uprooting the bushes on his farm in the hills of Sierra de Montecillos in Honduras, and the new plants replacing them will not yield coffee beans for at least three years.

    Climate change could be a factor. Humidity, hot weather and aged plants have given rise to perfect conditions for the fungus, the Financial Times reported.

    Farmers in Guatemala have seen some leaf rust since the 1980s, but it is more resilient now and spreading, CBC News quoted Mr Nils Leperowski, president of the National Coffee Association in Guatemala, as saying.

    "It was the combination of warmer temperatures and humidity. Now, we see it at all altitudes in Guatemala," he said.

    It is not clear if the rust epidemic is cyclical or here to stay, he added.

    Some governments in the region have been supplying farmers with fungicide, but the results of the exercise still remain to be seen. There were reports that this strain of rust was more aggressive and resistant to fungicide.

    For Central American farmers, a bumper crop in Brazil is adding to the toxic brew.

    In the past, outbreaks like these would lead to higher coffee prices, but arabica futures are trading near a four-year low of US$1.171 (S$1.48) - touched on June 20 - because of expectations of a huge off-year output in Brazil.

    The economic effects may be devastating for the region.

    The coffee industry, which is one of the largest employers in the region, has already shed 400,000 jobs this year and last, and the job losses are set to mount.