Rebuilding the Central American coffee industry

Keeping Coffee on the Table


Coffee production from fields like these, may fall by as much as 15-40% in the coming years, which could trigger job losses exceeding 500,000, and make coffee more expensive in the U.S.

The largest project of its type for Texas A&M AgriLife aims to reconstruct a Central American coffee industry still recovering from the coffee rust disease epidemic that devastated the region to the tune of $1 billion in the harvest season of late 2012 alone.

The research project, an almost $5 million Global Development Alliance (GDA) with principal partners at Texas A&M University, will focus research efforts in coffee-producing regions of Central America, the Caribbean, and Peru.

The GDA is led by World Coffee Research (WCR) and the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture – 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 (PROMECAFE), the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), the Feed the Future initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), and the Federal University of Viçosa.


Coffee plant displaying rust symptoms. The current coffee rust outbreak is the worst in Latin America’s history. Reasons for current outbreak are varied, but USAID plant experts say that climate change is exacerbating the crisis.

The United States Agency for International Development’s 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 empower entrepreneurs and create sustainable livelihoods for families – helping entire communities become self-sufficient.”

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

“PROMECAFE and WCR are confident in this GDA’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,” said Dr. Tim Schilling, Executive Director of World Coffee Research. “Central America must shoot for the higher end of the market and this GDA will allow that to happen by providing high quality, rust resistant varieties tailored for specific eco-geographic zones.”

Although much of the 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 under direction of Dr. Martin Dickman, in the department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. An innovative rust bio-control approach will also be executed with the Federal University of Viçosa in Brazil and Kew Gardens in London.

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, the regional coffee organization, reveal that overall coffee production is down by 20% compared to 2011. Roughly half of the approximate 1M hectares of coffee acreage were 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. 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.


Coffee rust is a plant disease that has caused more than $1 billion in economic damage in Latin America since 2012 and threatens the livelihoods and food security of those who make their living in the coffee industry, particularly small farmers.

“This multi-stakeholder initiative creates essential linkages between industry, research institutions and NGOs 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, WCR Chairperson and VP 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, 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. Second, 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, and supporting 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 ‘breeding’ blocks.

For more information about this, see Coffee Fungus Raising Coffee Prices.
The CBS story with video: Devastating coffee disease could raise worldwide prices


4 Responses to Rebuilding the Central American coffee industry

  1. This is Great. I drink coffee every morning, and cook with it sometimes, and to cut out the rust development through working, or involvement by A & M will be one of the greatest. To do this in Latin American will be of great implementation due to the need for them, and the need for us here in America, due to all that like the product! Thank you for your involvement!

  2. We’ve been controlling the coffee fungus for over a half-dozen years, through a spraying regimen using Nano Green.
    Currently, it is in use in over 35 countries, and has been particularly successful in Colombia, Panama and with certain other coffee producers. Our technology can be found at If you wish to speak with me about it, you can call 813-854-4457. – Alvin Bojar

  3. Bing Kirk says:

    I am a coffee producer in Nicaragua and would like to renovate my farm with these new varieties you are producing. Are there any available at this time?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>