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Helping Latin America Protect Its Coffee Crops

A small coffee producer Hector Perez shows coffee beans that have been damaged by the roya fungus in San Gaspar Vivar, Guatemala, Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013. Guatemala's President Otto Perez Molina has declared a national emergency over the spread coffee rust

U.S. is working closely with the coffee industry and other stakeholders to provide training and other forms of aid to affected communities.

It’s been said that given its caffeine content, coffee makes the world go round. If that isn’t literally true, as a food crop coffee has a major influence on many countries, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Helping Latin America Protect Its Coffee Crops
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Now, that crop is at risk, along with the livelihoods and food security of smallholder coffee farmers, due to a fungal disease that has swept through coffee fields from Mexico through Central America. Known as “la roya,” or the rust, the disease is hurting production and leading to crop losses of $500 million this year in Central America alone.

The fungus appears as orange-colored lesions on the leaves of the coffee plants, choking off the source of nutrition for the berries that contain the coffee beans. Infected plants produce fewer berries, and the berries that do grow and ripen produce beans with weakened flavor, hurting their marketability. As the rust spreads from leaf to leaf, the plants themselves suffer and in many cases, die.

With the increase of wet weather in recent years, the fungal spores have spread, and scientists predict the threat is growing. It isn’t farfetched to imagine the coffee industry of a whole nation being wiped out. It has happened before. In the mid-19th century, Southern India and Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, were thriving coffee-growing regions. But a widespread coffee rust infection crippled production and forced growers to switch to crops.

Central America accounts for nearly 12 percent of world coffee production, most of which is grown by smallholder farmers. Experts estimate that due to coffee rust, some 375,000 jobs will be lost.

Aware of the threat that our neighbors face in this scourge, the United States is working closely with affected governments, international organizations, civil society, coffee associations and the private sector to combat coffee rust.

Through a regional technical assistance agency, we have funded the hiring of a coordinator to disseminate information on the best ways to treat afflicted plants. In El Salvador and Guatemala, we are helping provide technical assistance to coffee farmers on how to manage risk and diversify their plantings with fungus-resistant types of coffee plants.

Through President Obama’s food security initiative, Feed the Future, the U.S. is working closely with the coffee industry and other stakeholders to provide training and other forms of aid to affected communities in Honduras and Guatemala. And in coordination with the International Finance Corporation, we are working to provide a loan program to offer medium- and long-term financing to coffee farmers to renovate and improve their operations.

Through these efforts, we aim to help preserve the livelihoods and food security for the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on this valuable crop.