Cup of research is half-full

Coffee: A weak international market means less funding for the science of making a better brew.

Medicine & Science

November 03, 2003|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Fernando Vega is a java fanatic, to the tune of five cups a day. Coffee gets him out of bed in the morning, courses through his veins all day and energizes him when he's tired. He keeps a roaster in his office, buys beans over the Internet, grinds them himself and brings back bags of the stuff from vacations and conventions.

"It's a great side benefit of the job - a perk I guess you could call it," says Vega, whose federal laboratory is dedicated to keeping the world's coffee crop safe from pests.

But the entomologist at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center is worried these days. In most countries, coffee revenues fuel research, and a decade-long decline in coffee prices is drying up funding and threatening the quality of java for years to come.

More research is needed, he says, to keep growers in business, trim production costs and protect the world's coffee crop from insects that now cause $500 million a year in losses.

"The quality of coffee will go down if people don't know what to do with the product," he says.

Other coffee scientists share Vega's concerns. With coffee prices at historic lows, they say, growers are anxious to cut costs and could cut quality by switching to cheaper seeds and harvesting methods.

"We have all the coffee we need today, but what about tomorrow, what about next year and the years after that?" asked H.C. Skip Bittenbender, a coffee researcher at the University of Hawaii.

At stake is a $70 billion crop, the livelihood of 25 million workers and the future of an elixir that people depend on for their morning jolt.

Although you might not know it from the prices that coffee boutiques charge for cappuccino, espresso and other fancy brews, wholesale coffee on world markets now sells for about 55 cents a pound, compared with $1.20 in the 1980s.

The low prices are the result of overproduction and - despite the success of Starbucks and other coffee boutiques- a steady drop in demand. In the United States, per capita coffee consumption has dropped from 36 gallons a year in the 1970s to 17 gallons today, according to government and private surveys.

The real glut in supply began in the 1990s, when Brazil increased coffee production and Vietnam entered the market. Today the world's producers grow an estimated 117 million bags of coffee (containing 132 pounds each) - about 9 million bags more than we drink.

As a result, research in producing countries - funded largely by coffee revenues - has been slashed. In Colombia, a research center financed by the country's National Federation of Coffee Growers has trimmed its staff from 430 to about 160 over the past decade, said Francisco Posada, a Colombian national who has a doctorate in entomology and works with Vega.

The Department of Agriculture's Beltsville facility is the nation's only full-time federal coffee pest lab. The United States is hardly a coffee power, but USDA funds coffee research because it helps growers in Hawaii and it's important to U.S. coffee merchants - as well as to producers of the milk and sugar that we add to coffee every day.

In a letter published in the journal Nature in October, Vega called for an international research center in Africa or South America to coordinate global research, train producers and distribute scientific findings. Similar government-funded consortia conduct research on bananas and other crops.

"There's all kinds of issues that have to be addressed. How to handle coffee post-harvest, the best pest control, weed control and storage issues," he said.

Coffee plants can be crippled by a variety of insects and other pests. For example, about 50 types of fungi live inside coffee leaves. Most are benign, but others can contaminate the beans, reducing their value or making some unsalable.

The biggest threat, however, comes from one of the 900 insects that make their homes on coffee plants. It's the berry borer, Hypothenemus hampei, which drills into the center of the bean and costs growers $500 million a year. "It can be an incredibly destructive pest," Bittenbender said.

Vega is looking for a way to use a coffee leaf fungus known Beauveria, which attacks a broad range of insects, to combat the berry borer. His work has taken him to Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Mexico to collect leaves for testing.

"The goal is to make Beauveria thrive in the coffee plant, and the question right now is what happens when we put Beauveria into different plants - will it thrive or not?" he said.

Experts also want to do more research into the possibility of breeding coffee beans that grow more readily in Africa, coffee's birthplace.

"We haven't spent a lot of time or effort asking whether the species we're growing are really the best suited," said Ted R. Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, a group that represents 2,500 large and small coffee wholesalers and retailers.

Scientists also want to find a replacement for endosulfan, a common coffee plant pesticide that can be toxic to workers.

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