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Deadly pest poses threat to Indian coffee crop.

Deadly pest poses threat to Indian coffee crop

For Indian coffee, 1990/91 could very well be the good year that wasn't. The signs are favorable: a healthy monsoon, recovering world prices and extensive plantings of a new Arabica hybrid that should start yielding this year. All that, however, could be destroyed by a single pest. The berry borer - Hypothenemus hampei, the world's deadliest pest of coffee - has recently been discovered in some South Indian coffee plantations. This pest is known to reduce yields by more than half and in some cases, especially in combination with other pests and diseases, totally wipe out coffee cultivation.

The crucial question is how serious the threat is to overall coffee production in India. Though infestation right now appears to be confined to a few plantations - 13 estates in Gudalur (in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu) and one in Wayanad (Kerala) - the pest could spread rapidly if not controlled at once. If the lethargy with which its discovery was greeted is any indication, measures to control it aren't going to be taken overnight.

The berry borer was detected in early 1990 in a coffee curing works in Kushalnagar, in the Kodagu district of Karnataka. It was found crawling over one lot of coffee sent in from Gudalur. According to the Indian press, the Coffee Board didn't take any action even though the Kodagu Planters' Association promptly reported this discovery in its quarterly bulletin. It was only when a member of the Association directly contacted the directorate of plant protection in New Delhi that a survey of coffee-growing areas was initiated. The survey team investigated 58 estates in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, noting that the highest incidence of the pest was in the Gudalur area, which it had probably entered three or four years earlier.

How the berry borer came into India is a puzzle. Quarantine measures on coffee seeds (generally imported to help develop new hybrids suited to the Indian climate) kept the pest, formerly found only in Central Africa and parts of Central America, out of India. One theory about how it entered the country is that refugees from Sri Lanka carried in infested seeds. This makes some sense because what refugees bring in is rarely checked, and many of them work in the Gudalur plantations. Another explanation is that intense pressure to develop new high-yielding varieties, a highly profitable enterprise, led one of the major seed producers to smuggle in coffee seeds without proper quarantine measures.

The news of the pest came at a time when Indian coffee production was just beginning to recover from its 1989/90 slump. After a 39% drop to 130,000 metric tons during that year, output was expected to rebound to about 220,000 metric tons in 1990/91. Although the white stem borer was noticed in some plantations this year, no major pests or diseases affected the 1988/89 crop, and those that normally afflict Indian coffee, like the shothole borer, the stem borer and the mealy bug, could be easily controlled. The berry borer, however, is more difficult to deal with. It is host specific, meaning that it targets only coffee berries, which, if sprayed directly with pesticides, could become highly toxic.

This, in fact, is the main problem with the control measures recommended by the Coffee Board of India after discovery of the pest. The Board has suggested fumigating infected coffee from the Gudalur area, taking it to curing works set aside for it and fumigating it again there. The Gudalur crop would not be used for seeding, and it would be flooded with pesticides, including Endosulphan, BHC and Folidol. These chemicals would make the coffee unfit for consumption, particularly BHC, which combines with fat tissue and remains in the body for years.

Therefore, there's no place for this coffee to go. It can't be exported, as no foreign country will accept it. It can't be sold on the domestic market without posing a serious health risk to consumers. Moreover, the domestic market isn't very promising. Consumption this year, although estimated to be 7% higher than 1988/89 at 1.45 million bags, is still low, around 1.0 kg per capita compared to an average of 3.0 kg in most consuming nations.

The most serious problem that planters face because of the berry borer infestation is that the Robusta crop will also have to be sprayed. Highly resistant to pests and diseases, Robusta normally doesn't need chemical treatment. But because the berry borer attacks it with as much vigor as it does Arabica, Robusta will now need spraying - and at an annual cost of around Rs. 1,000 (about $50) per acre for a variety that fetches a lower price on the market, few cultivators are likely to go in for it.

The best option, plant pathologists say, is to quarantine the Gudalur and Wayanad crops and then burn and destroy them, thereby killing the pest by destroying its habitat. Also, since the berry borer is host specific, only coffee berries need be destroyed, and the plant itself can be left standing to produce crops in the future.

Whether the government will take this step remains to be seen. Red tape isn't a problem, since the production and movement of coffee are totally controlled by the Coffee Board and Central Excise. Moreover, in November 1990, the Ministry of Agriculture issued a draft notification giving local government authorities discretion to destroy infested crops. So far, however, the fate of the Gudalur crop is still up in the air.

Since the infested coffee is confined to a relatively small area original projections for 1990/91 production aren't likely to be way off - assuming, of course, that the berry borer can be at least partially controlled. If weather conditions remain normal and productivity increases cyclically, output of 3 million bags is forecast for the 1990/91 season. Some analysts estimate 1989/90 (October-September) coffee production at 2.25 million bags (Arabica, 1.25 million bags; Robusta, 1 million bags) from 228,000 hectares, 37% below 1988/89's record harvest from 225,000 hectares. The Coffee Board estimates 2.5 million bags for 1989/90. Poor weather during the growth stage (February-April) and generally dry conditions during the blossom period in May, combined with the normal biennial production cycle of coffee, are responsible for the reduced output.

Indian coffee is unlikely to surpass its 1988/89 performance in the near future. That was a banner year, with production, exports and stocks all surpassing earlier records. For example, production at 3.59 million bags was 10% higher than in 1984/85, exports at 1.92 million bags were 22% larger than in 1986/87, and ending stocks at 1.64 million bags were 24% over 1987/88.

Coffee exports for the 1989/90 season are forecast at 1.8 million bags, 6% below 1988/89, due to increased competition in the absence of the ICA and reduced exportable supplies. India's share of exports to non-member countries during 1988/89 showed an increase, largely due to higher sales to the Soviet Union. Non-member sales are expected to remain high (well over 50%) during 1989/90 as well. Under the 1989 bilateral agreement between India and the Soviet Union, the Coffee Board signed a contract for the sale of 64,000 metric tons (green bean equivalent) compared with 36,000 metric tons under the 1988 agreement. Currently, about 15 private traders are involved in the export of coffee. The share of the Coffee Board and the private traders has been almost 50:50 and this trend is expected to continue.

Domestic Coffee Prices

Domestic average coffee prices during CY 1989 were about Rs. 1,210-1,260 per 50 kg compared with Rs. 973-1,219 per 50 kg in CY 1988. The average export price to ICO member countries during 1988/89 (October-September) was Rs. 31,876/metric ton, compared with Rs. 34,135/metric ton to nonmember countries. The overall unit export value at Rs. 33,159/metric ton compares with Rs. 32,535/metric ton in 1987/88. At present there is no export duty on coffee, including soluble coffee. During 1988/89, the government revised the minimum release price at the Coffee Board's retail outlets to Rs. 19.81/kg for Arabica and Rs. 15.90/kg for Robusta - an increase of 28% over the earlier floor price.

India would like to be in the Arabica producing group of the ICO. Except during 1985/86 and 1986/87, when Robusta production was about 59% and 53% of total output, Arabica production has always been more than 50%. In 1986, the Central Coffee Research Institute in Chickmagalur, Karnataka, released an Arabica variety catimore hybrid. Compared to average production of about one metric ton per hectare, this variety can yield two metric tons and starts yielding within five years of planting. The catimore variety is now being cultivated in almost all the coffee-growing states of southern India. Since the government may soon subsidize Arabica cultivation, Robusta is not expected to make inroads into Arabica areas.

Table : Production, supply and distribution (thousands)
 85/86 86/87 87/88 88/89
Area Planted 241 245 250 256
Area Harvested 215 220 225 230
Bearing Trees 360 370 375 386
Non-bear. Tree 49 50 52 44
Total Tree Pop. 409 420 427 430
Beg. Stocks 1,663 980 1,533 1,118
Arabic Prod. 1,203 1,483 1,100 1,670
Robusta Prod. 834 1,700 980 1,580
Total Prod. 2,037 3,183 2,080 3,250

U.S. imports of Indian coffee ($ thousands): 29,502 (1987); 14,869 (1988); 21,079 (1989); 9,238 (by August 1990). Source: Agricultural counselor, U.S. Embassy, New Delhi

Rama Ramaswami is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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Title Annotation:berry borer
Author:Ramaswami, Rama
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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