An unusually aggressive coffee-eating fungus has crept higher than 6,000 feet above sea level for the first time in Guatemala, threatening the country’s most prized beans, a top Guatemalan coffee official said Thursday, Jean Guerrero of Dow Jones Newswires reports from Mexico City.
“Antigua, our famous coffee, is being affected,” Ricardo Villanueva, president of the Guatemalan Coffee Association, or Anacafe, told Dow Jones. “This has never happened.” The fungus, known as roya, lowers the quality of harvested coffee beans and slashes the productivity of plants. Mr. Villanueva said he believes the output for the 2012-13 season that began this month won’t see a significant impact, but the following season’s production could be hit by a year-on-year drop of up to 15 percent. Throughout Central America, coffee plantations are seeing particularly strong outbreaks of roya, largely as a result of climate change. The fungus tends to spread with humidity, but it has rarely been found at altitudes beyond 3,500 feet. Guatemala’s coffee output is usually relatively stable, at 3.8 million 60-kilogram bags last season, according to the International Coffee Organization. The coffee season in this Central American country runs from October through September of the following year. Mr. Villanueva said the costs of eradicating the fungus are expensive, at more than $50 per hectare for an application of the necessary pesticide. However, producers have in some cases applied it up to three times to no avail because the fungus has become resistant to chemicals. The country’s volcanic Acatenango region, which received a denomination of origin certification that boosts the premium on its beans two weeks ago, is also suffering severe damage from roya. Small coffee producers, representing half of Guatemala’s total, are the ones experiencing the worst of the damage, the coffee official added. In many cases, the fungus has caused the leaves of coffee plants to fall off, leaving the plant vulnerable to another disease that dries it out entirely.