Alliance named to rebuild Central American coffee industry

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A Texas A&M AgriLife project, the largest of its type awarded to date, aims to help reconstruct a Central American coffee industry still recovering from a coffee rust disease epidemic that has devastated the region.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has announced an almost $5 million partnership with Texas A&M University entities and others on a Global Development Alliance to focus on research efforts in coffee-producing regions of Central America, the Caribbean and Peru.

The alliance is led by World Coffee Research and the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture in College Station, both programs of Texas A&M AgriLife Research.

Project partners include coffee research and development institutions from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Dominican Republic and Jamaica, the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center, the Feed the Future initiative of USAID, the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development and the Federal University of Vicosa.

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 an improved Central American coffee sector through plantation renovation with high quality, disease resistant coffee varieties and a constant pipeline of newer, higher performing varieties.

The rust epidemic cost the Central American coffee industry $1 billion in the harvest season of late 2012 alone, according to Dr. Tim Schilling, executive director of World Coffee Research.

“We are confident in this alliance’s ability to turn things around for the Central American coffee producer who has been hit hard with a double-whammy of leaf rust and low prices,” Schilling said. “Central America must shoot for the higher end of the market and this alliance will allow that to happen by providing high-quality, rust-resistant varieties tailored for specific eco-geographic zones.”

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah said, “By partnering with innovators from College Station to Colombia, we can promote broad-based economic growth for the world’s most vulnerable people. Fighting epidemics like coffee rust empowers entrepreneurs and creates sustainable livelihoods for families – helping entire communities become self-sufficient.”

While much of the project 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 in College Station under the direction of Dr. Martin Dickman of the department of plant pathology and microbiology in the Texas A&M University System’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Additionally, an innovative rust biocontrol approach will be executed with the Federal University of Vicosa in Brazil and Kew Gardens in London.

According to experts, the Central American coffee leaf rust crisis of 2012 was caused by climatic and pathological interactions further aggravated by the unpreparedness of the sector due to low coffee prices and underscored by the use of older, rust-susceptible varieties.

Estimates by PROMECAFE, a regional coffee organization, indicate current regional coffee production is down 20 percent as compared to 2011. Overall, about half of the region’s coffee acreage was significantly affected by coffee leaf rust, resulting in lower production and less farmer income.

Current rust mitigation actions through fungicide spraying are essential to keep coffee production viable for 2014 and 2015, experts said. 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.

“This multi-stakeholder initiative creates essential linkages between industry, research institutions and non-government organizations to provide coffee farming families with more tools and greater capacity to confront a growing number of threats to their coffee and their livelihoods,” said Lindsey Bolger, World Coffee Research chair and vice president of coffee sourcing and excellence at Keurig Green Mountain.

“By engaging with WCR, coffee roasting companies like Keurig Green Mountain can leverage their interest in ensuring a long-term supply of high quality coffee while helping to address the immediate needs of coffee producing families and communities in Central and South America.”

Because Central America can grow in the specialty coffee sector as a major supplier of top-drawer coffees for the most discriminating and lucrative markets, project coordinators noted, there are five priorities for the project.

The first priority is to assist producers in making the best investment decisions in choosing varietals for plantation renovation. The second will be to provide assistance to the private and public sectors in how to multiply the best varieties and make them available to producers.

While this is being done, coffee production trend data will be collected, including socio-economic variables that would be paramount in preventing future biological disasters such as the rust epidemic. This third effort will allow a comprehensive analysis of the viability of smallholder coffee in Central America for use by industry and government planning.

The final two priorities involve safeguarding coffee by creating a pipeline of readily available, high-quality, pest-resistant genetic material to advance the best varieties to farmer evaluation and eventual commercialization. They will also support a multi-stakeholder effort to create a high-tech breeding program to provide the highest level of quality-tailored, adapted, climate resilient and pest-resistant coffee ‘breeding’ blocks.

World Coffee Research non-profit, collaborative research and development program of the global coffee industry to grow, protect, and enhance supplies of quality coffee while improving the livelihoods of the families who produce it. The program is funded and driven by the global coffee industry, guided by producers and implemented by coffee scientists around the world in collaboration with the Borlaug Institute. For more information, go to

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