CHINCHINÁ, Colombia -- At a sprawling central Colombia coffee laboratory and research facility — full of coffee plants trapped in jars and shimmering test-tubes — workers poked their heads out of cubicles to share the latest news from Central America and Mexico.
“Did you read that story about Nicaragua?” one asked a visiting delegation. “They’re really suffering.”
Just a few years ago, the Colombian coffee industry was on its knees as a virulent fungus known as coffee-leaf rust – or roya in Spanish — infected 40 percent of the crop.
Millions of dollars and a massive re-planting effort later, this Andean nation is showing signs of recovery just as its neighbors to the North are being slammed by the blight.
Analysts believe roya could hit 30 to 50 percent of the Central American and Mexican coffee crop over the next few years, and some aid agencies fear it could lead to hunger or even famine in a region where farmers live from harvest to harvest.
If Colombia’s fight with roya is any indication, Central America could have a long, expensive and rough road ahead.
The fungus creates orange spots on leaves and destroys the fruit, often during multiple seasons. As warmer and wetter weather has swept the region, roya has thrived, spreading to higher altitude coffee farms that used to be out of reach. While fungicides can help stop roya, most farmers eventually have to radically prune their trees, sacrificing harvests for years.
In the rolling hills of Colombia’s coffee country, Luis Alirio Rios was watching workers on his farm, El Descanso, come in with buckets full of red coffee berries.
“Just a few years ago this place was destroyed by roya,” he said. In 2012, his harvest dropped to 4,100 pounds per 2.5-acre plot, or 39 percent below usual, he said.
But this year is going to be different. As he pulled back the branch of a young Castillo coffee plant, it was loaded with pea-sized berries that should be ripe in a few months. Rios said he’s expecting a bumper crop.
The Castillo plant looks like an ordinary coffee plant, but it has been at the heart of the Colombian rebound.
Alvaro Gaitan, a scientist at Cenicafé, a research and development facility in Chinchiná run by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, recently led the way to a temperature-controlled room. Lined and labeled on shelves were hundreds of glass jars containing coffee varieties plucked from across the world, but particularly from Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee.
Over the course of 13 years, Cenicafé scientists cross-bred some of the specimen with local varieties to produce the roya-resistant Castillo plant. Since 2011, the country has uprooted more than 1,200 square miles of coffee farms and replanted Castillo, at a cost of about $1.1 billion.
But Colombia’s super plant is virtually useless in Central America, said Gaitan. Coffee plants need to be bred and tailored to match local conditions, and Cenicafé has produced seven regional varieties of Castillo just to meet Colombian demand. Central American farms may be too wet or dry to support the plant, he said. And while Central America has a coffee plague called mycena citricolor, or gotera, for example, Colombia has never had the issue and Castillo’s genes haven’t been tweaked for it, Gaitan explained.