Disease, drought hammer Latin America coffee crops; governments worry that production will move overseas

Jun 17, 2014

Much of Latin America’s identity is shaped by coffee; its importance is difficult to overstate.

Beyond being a delicacy and a morning-time motivator in Latin America and abroad, it is one of Latin America’s major exports, sustaining independent farmers in rural areas chl coffee1as well as corporate bankers in metropolitan areas.

But the last decade has proven difficult: changing climate patterns have exaggerated plagues and droughts in the region, and this has produced less than desirable conditions for coffee production. It has wreaked havoc on the entire industry, and some are already looking to shift coffee production toward Asia and away from Latin America.

Severe drought curbed the growing season in Brazil, the world’s lead coffee exporter, as well as a sweeping epidemic of coffee rust (“roya” in Spanish), a fungus that suffocates coffee trees and lowers bean yields.

Just one of three major epidemics to hit Latin America within the last six years, the rust outbreak began in 2012, affecting countries from Mexico to Peru. The nations in Central America are experiencing the highest levels of crop loss, which is unfortunate because about 5 million people in the region gain their livelihood, directly or indirectly, from coffee.

Ecuador, which produces a small but high quality coffee crop for export, is the only country in the region to have avoided the rust but farmers are wary of its arrival. The government has put new import rules in place to keep infected plants out of the country.

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“In Nicaragua, in particular, farmer groups have been really hit hard,” said Monika Firl, social projects manager at Cooperative Coffees, a Montreal-based sourcing co-op that imports specialty coffee. “Some groups that we are working with might have 20 percent of their total harvest. There are other farmers we are working with in El Salvador that will have 5 or 10 percent of their usual harvest, so for a farmer that’s already living on the edge, this is disastrous.”

The economic foundation of these nations is threatened by a wave of agricultural catastrophes, higher prices and lower quality brews for consumers worldwide. Since 2011, the total production of coffee has dropped by 20 percent, an approximate loss of more than $1 billion.

Latin American coffee growers are facing a 2-3 year recovery period before seeing pre-plague harvest figures. Meanwhile, from Mexico to Brazil, many are already experiencing poverty and malnutrition, and there will be an inevitable upsurge in unemployment rates, hunger and, ultimately, mass migration, all because of the fragility of commodity-based economies in Latin America.

“Countries like Peru, Mexico and Colombia are regarded as the ‘pumas of Latin America’ just like the tiger economies in Asia,” said W. Alejandro Sanchez, a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). “As much as some of our economies are thriving, we are still economies based on basic commodities: oil, gas, lithium, potatoes, rice, beans and coffee. That means we are at the mercy of the environment.”

Coffee Rush Outbreak
Moisture accumulation leads to rust thriving in previously uninhabited areas, resulting in rust outbreaks. Also, disruptions in typical dry seasons, land use methods, degradation of quality of soil, use/misuse of fertilizer or fungicides, and a shift towards high-density monoculture farming eases the transmission of diseases.

Sri Lanka was the largest producer of coffee in 1870; and in 1875, a rust outbreak spread quickly and decimated the crops. Twenty years later, 95 percent of the harvest had been lost.

The British colony then began to plant tea, which led to Britain’s present day inclination toward tea. Honduras, where 50 percent of the coffee plants were rust-resistant, suffered a 28 percent loss of coffee yields during the most recent outbreak.

The Latin American governments have attempted to help farmers plant rust-resistant varieties, which ultimately leads to an inferior cup of coffee. The U.S. government announced a $5 million partnership with Texas A&M University’s World Coffee Research center to help generate stronger strains of coffee that’s resistant to pests and plagues.

However, those efforts may prove purposeless as the natural cycles of plagues and illnesses move quicker than humans are clever; and developments created to counter fungus in labs may quickly become obsolete. Also, fungicides, insecticides, fertilizers and pruning equipment are expensive investments for farmers who’ve lost as much as 80 percent of their crops. Worldwide investments in potentially ineffective research and development for coffee growth will total about $100 million per year. The full value of the coffee industry is $100 billion a year.

Future of Coffee Production
Only four countries export two-thirds of the world’s supply; the concentrated production creates a situation where a drought somewhere, like Brazil, can shake the entire industry. Globalized coffee production keeps crop prices relatively stable, and exports from Asia have replaced crop loss in Latin America. But, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and China have been increasing coffee production driven greatly by deforestation — a fact that’s all too often ignored.

Southeast Asia and Africa also exchanged much of their Arabica coffee trees, the rich-flavored variety preferred by specialty brewers, for the blander and more resilient Robusta coffee trees. Twenty years ago, 30 percent of coffee in stores was Robusta, and now it’s about 40 percent. Those percentages promise to increase. Global demand for coffee continues to rise, but consumers will remain largely unaffected by the laboring coffee production landscape, as it scrambles to meet their needs.

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