US throws millions at coffee 'rust' fight

23:18, May 18 2014
UNDER THREAT: The coffee rust outbreak is the worst in Latin America's history.

The US government is teaming up with researchers from Texas to intensify the battle against a fungus that has caused $1 billion in damage to coffee plants across Latin America and the Caribbean, US foreign aid officials said on Sunday.

The so-called leaf rust, or roya, is a yellow and orange-colored fungus that has swept coffee fields from Mexico to Peru over the past two years, threatening to stunt production and drive up the price of Latin American roasts.

Especially hard hit have been Central America's arabica coffee plants, which produce high-quality beans used in espressos and gourmet specialty blends that are in growing demand around the world.

Moreover, the blight is jeopardising the livelihood and food security of about 500,000 people who make their living in the coffee industry, especially small farmers and seasonal workers, according to the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Mass job losses could in turn leave displaced coffee workers more susceptible to the illegal drug trade and associated violence in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, agency spokesman Matthew Herrick said on Sunday.

In a new programme to be formally announced on Monday, USAID is launching a $5 million (NZ$5.8m) partnership with Texas A&M University's World Coffee Research that seeks to eradicate the fungus, the agency said in a statement.

The partnership will support research to develop rust-resistant coffee varieties and expand the capability of the Latin America's coffee institutions to monitor and respond to outbreaks of the blight, USAID said.

"The current coffee rust outbreak is the worst in Latin America's history," the agency said in its statement. "It is estimated that production will fall by as much as 15-40 per cent in the coming years."

Sharply falling production yields would likely result in consumers paying more for their favourite roasts at the local grocery store and coffee shops, officials said.

The programme with Texas A&M is part of the Obama administration's Feed the Future initiative, a global anti-hunger and anti-poverty effort that USAID said has reached 7 million small farmers and 12.5 million children.

The latest USAID effort brings to $14 million (NZ$16.2m) the sum invested by the agency in the fight against coffee rust, officials said.