The U.S. Is Pouring Millions Into Latin America’s Fight Against Coffee Disease

A devastating fungus could reduce coffee production in the region by up to 40 percent in the next few years.

National Journal
May 19, 2014, 11:13 a.m.

A fungus that has already caused more than $1 bil­lion in dam­ages to the cof­fee trade in Lat­in Amer­ica is threat­en­ing to in­flate the price of high-end cof­fee beans — and the United States is wor­ried.

The U.S. Agency for In­ter­na­tion­al De­vel­op­ment has an­nounced a $5 mil­lion part­ner­ship with Texas A&M Uni­versity’s World Cof­fee Re­search to com­bat the fungus, known as cof­fee rust, the As­so­ci­ated Press re­ports. The dis­ease is es­pe­cially dam­aging to the Ar­ab­ica beans used in most spe­cialty cof­fee in the U.S.

The new part­ner­ship brings the total USAID in­vest­ment in the ef­fort to re­verse the ef­fects of cof­fee rust to $14 mil­lion. “Fight­ing epi­dem­ics like cof­fee rust em­power en­tre­pren­eurs and cre­ate sus­tain­able live­li­hoods for fam­il­ies,” said USAID chief Raj Shah, “help­ing en­tire com­munit­ies be­come self-suf­fi­cient.”

Ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from USAID on Sunday, the blight could re­duce cof­fee pro­duc­tion by 15 per­cent to 40 per­cent in the com­ing years. The agency called this out­break “the worst in Lat­in Amer­ic­an his­tory,” es­tim­at­ing that it would af­fect the live­li­hoods of about 500,000 cof­fee farm­ers in the re­gion. Causes of cof­fee rust vary, ac­cord­ing to World Cof­fee Re­search, and in­clude “cli­mat­ic and patho­lo­gic­al in­ter­ac­tions” as well as farm­ers’ wide­spread use of rust-sus­cept­ible cof­fee plants.

But Amer­ic­an in­volve­ment has less to do with keep­ing the price of lattes low and more to do with the po­ten­tially dis­astrous eco­nom­ic ef­fects for Lat­in Amer­ic­an coun­tries. USAID is es­pe­cially wary that the res­ult­ing food in­sec­ur­ity and poverty could leave cof­fee work­ers sus­cept­ible to the il­leg­al drug trade and sur­round­ing vi­ol­ence, es­pe­cially in coun­tries such as Guatem­ala, Hon­dur­as, and El Sal­vador.

It hasn’t been a good year for cof­fee pro­duc­tion so far. A re­cent drought in Brazil has res­ul­ted in high­er prices and de­creased pro­duc­tion of Ar­ab­ica beans. Ric Rhine­hart of the Spe­cialty Cof­fee As­so­ci­ation of Amer­ica told AP that smal­ler cof­fee com­pan­ies have already seen the ef­fects of the de­crease in sup­ply, not­ing that some vari­et­ies of cof­fee may be­come very pricey or dis­ap­pear al­to­geth­er.

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