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Coffee Leaf Rust ‘Emergency’ Prompts Request For New Fungicide, Threatens Organic Farming

By Max Dible
March 17, 2021, 2:36 PM HST
* Updated March 18, 10:34 AM
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Confirmation of coffee leaf rust (CLR) in Hawai`i has complicated the state’s $56 million coffee industry.

CLR is a fungus capable of decimating coffee crops, the arrival of which has been long-feared but viewed by many in the business as all but inevitable. It showed up on Maui first, then landed in the Kona Coffee Belt around October of last year.

“It is spreading very fast,” said Jean Orlowski, the proprietor of a large organic coffee concern on the Big Island who said he works in several areas across the Kona region. “We see rust in almost all places.”

Coffee Leaf Rust on Hilo coffee plants. (PC: Hawai’i Department of Agriculture)

Once rust sets in, it is impossible to eradicate, but it can be managed. To combat it effectively, the Hawai`i Department of Agriculture (HDOA) on Tuesday filed a request for a specific exemption from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The exemption would allow Hawai`i coffee growers to use a fungicide called Priaxor Xemium to help manage the ever-more prevalent infestations.

The fungicide is not labeled by the EPA for specific use on coffee plants, but it is allowed for use to control fungi on leafy vegetables, strawberries, tomatoes, soybeans, wheat and many other crops. Any use of Priaxor Xemium would not be allowable until the EPA reviews and approves the application, which could take up to 45 days. If the exemption is approved, the fungicide may be used for up to one year or until use on coffee plants is added to the product label by the EPA and the product’s producer.

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“We ask all those who have coffee plants to survey their plants and report possible infections so various management strategies may be implemented to minimize the impact on our important coffee industry,” said Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser, chairperson of the Hawai`i Board of Agriculture.

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However, approval to use the fungicide is only the first of two hurdles that some coffee purveyors need to clear, specifically those like Orlowski who are classified as organic coffee farmers.

“The difference for me is that I am an organic farmer,” he explained as part of a conversation with Big Island Now in February. “This product is not organic. If I spray it, I lose organic certification. Other products are not good enough, and I need to decide.”

Later that month, Governor David Ige declared that an emergency exists for Hawai`i’s coffee industry due to the effects of CLR. This declaration was an important step because it allowed organic coffee growers to file a request with the National Organic Certification Program to allow them to utilize non-organic products, such as Priaxor Xemium, and still maintain their organic statuses.

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Without the declaration, organic farmers would have lost their certifications for three years simply for using the fungicide. That its use may be required several times over the span of a career in coffee, the prospect of losing organic certifications for even longer than three years, or perhaps for good, was not out of the question for many farmers.

Orlowski said that via the emergency declaration, his farms could still lose the right to label and advertise their crops as organic, but only for the upcoming season should he decide to spray the fungicide. Any season the specially-approved fungicide is not used, “organic” can remain part of the brand.

A Growing Problem

Other efforts to stem the spread of CLR are underway by a multi-agency coalition comprised of the HDOA, the University of Hawai`i’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (UH-CTAHR), and the USDA Daniel K. Inouye Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center.

In November 2020, HDOA implemented Interim Rule 20-1, which restricts the interisland movement of coffee plants, plant parts and other coffee-associated materials from Maui and Hawai`i Island. The Board has tentatively scheduled a virtual meeting for March 23 to consider expanding the infested areas to include Lana`i and O`ahu, where new CLR-impacted areas have been identified. The Board will also consider implementing the same restrictions on the movement of coffee plants, plant parts and other coffee-associated materials from these areas.

Other efforts to address the CLR infestations include importing disease-resistant coffee plants, developing integrated pest management strategies and developing best management practices. A collaborative outreach program was also coordinated including radio public service announcements and informational posters.

Coffee growers and roasters have been notified by HDOA’s Plant Quarantine Branch (PQB) that the issue will be up for discussion and consideration by the Board. The Board meeting agendas are posted at least six days prior to the meeting on the State of Hawai`i Public Meeting calendar at: https://calendar.ehawaii.gov/calendar/ and at HDOA’s website.

For more information about Priaxor Xemium use under the EPA exemption, contact your local Pesticides Branch office at:

  • Hawai´i: 808-974-4143
  • Kaua´i: 808-241-7140
  • O´ahu: 808-973-9402
  • Maui County: 808-873-3078

Suspected CLR infestations should be reported to HDOA’s Plant Pest Control Branch at (808) 973-9525. For more information on CLR and the Hawaii coffee industry, go to:

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations.
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