Coffee Berry Borer: Is Australia at risk?

Just over 2 kilometres from Australian shores in Papua New Guinea lurks the most harmful plague known to coffee producers – Coffee Berry Borer (CBB).

The beetle, known for its speedy reproduction, burrows into and destroys coffee beans. The pest has devastated thousands of crops throughout the world, and there’s fears it could pose a threat to Australia’s $100 million coffee industry.

The danger is that the beetle can spread rapidly, causing degradation of coffee quality or, worse, production losses of more than 80 per cent. When coffee is in the green bean stage, signs of CBB are evident as bean defects, which affect the whole coffee cup. Even a minor outbreak can spell trouble.

PNG was one of a few coffee-growing countries worldwide unaffected by the devastating beetle until its Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC) confirmed the outbreak in February 2017. Regions with CBB include the popular Jiwaka, Eastern and Western Highlands Provinces, bringing the biological security of Australia’s coffee farms into focus.

Australia is unique in that it is free of the major pests and diseases that are endemic in coffee-growing regions in the rest of the world. Exotic pests such as CBB reduce yields and increase costs to farmers worldwide. Until now, CBB had a limited presence in Indonesia, but with its spread to our nearest neighbour in February, the Australian Sub Tropical Coffee Association (ASTCA) says Australian coffee farmers need to be prepared.

“At stake is the continued financial viability of our burgeoning Australian coffee-growing industry, and the maintenance of our highly valued status as spray-free producers,” says Jan Fadelli, President of the ASTCA.

The Biosecurity Division of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR) manages the risk of importation of a pest such as CBB on a daily basis.

“There are protocols in place with the import of green coffee by large-scale brokers and identification of pests such as CBB larvae or adult beetles. Subsequent fumigation is an effective strategy to minimise the risk of a bag of international coffee coming with CBB travellers inside,” Jan says.

“It is important to note that not all green coffee is inspected at port of entry. Sampling is risk-based and depends on the origin of the green bean. There are no 100-per-cent guarantees that live CBB larvae or adults will not be imported into Australia. A review of current practice, its implementation and effectiveness, is urgently required to ensure our importers are using international best practice.”

Jan says there are increased risks of green coffee being imported into Australia that bypasses the established customs and quarantine regime.

“If you are an importer of green coffee and other coffee products such as cascara into Australia, you must comply with established biosecurity protocols. To not do so is to put the livelihoods of coffee farmers in Australia at risk,” Jan says.

Of more immediate concern is the number of individuals who are travelling to countries that have pests such as CBB and diseases such as Coffee Leaf Rust, and are returning to Australia with coffee-plant samples in their hand or checked luggage.

“With the rise of origin visits by baristas and roasters, there have been a number of incidents of individuals returning to Australia with plant samples, whole dried cherry or green bean samples. These plant materials have entered the country free of any inspection regime,” Jan says. “These same samples could unwittingly be the vehicle by which an industry-crippling disease or pest is introduced into one of our coffee growing areas.”

ASTCA says it would like all roasters and baristas travelling overseas to coffee growing regions to be mindful of the risks, and to follow these simple rules:
• Do not bring whole coffee cherry or parchment into Australia.
• Do not bring coffee plant leaves, skins, root stock or whole plants into Australia.
• Declare any processed green coffee seeds on a customs form when returning to Australia
• Ask for a vendor declaration from the seller of green bean that it is free of pest and disease.
• Ensure dirt and mud on shoes from overseas plantations is removed prior to returning to Australia.
• If visiting an Australian coffee farm, inform the farmer of any overseas travel you have taken in the weeks prior.
• Comply with any on farm biosecurity protocols when attending an Australian coffee plantation such as foot washes and farm area restrictions.

The ASTCA has been working with Plant Health Australia since late 2016 to identify potential pests and the appropriate response. In light of the PNG outbreak, the association is taking part in the establishment of a new Coffee Biosecurity Reference Panel that will help guide the development of on-farm resources, and pest and disease identification fact sheets for farmers. It will also work with government departments and agencies to ensure that adequate import protocols and quarantine measures are in place to protect Australia’s vital agricultural sector.

Agronomist David Peasley says there are a number of minor pests that face Australian coffee growers each year. Natural production systems are used to control these pests and diseases.

“Prevention, early identification and planned effective response is critical in keeping disease and pests under control, allowing the best quality and maximum yield from Australia’s coffee plantations,” David says.

CBB is also endangering the significant bilateral trade agreements between Australia, New Zealand and PNG, and is threatening the livelihoods of thousands of coffee producers. On the ground, Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand has been working closely with international coffee experts and agencies, such as the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica, and local industries to help transfer practical knowledge and research to mitigate the impact of the beetle. Without control, PNG could lose up to 80 per cent of the crop.

“The income of smallholder coffee farmers can be fragile, so we needed to work alongside them to provide considered, strategic and timely responses,” says Molly Harriss Olson, CEO of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand.

Worldwide losses caused by the CBB beetle are estimated at US$500 million. In Colombia, CBB infestations rose above normal levels during the early months of 2016, having a particularly negative impact on the main harvest of the departments of Caldas, Risaralda, Quindío and Tolima. This increase, which in some cases exceeded 10 per cent infestation, was the result of the El Niño phenomenon. Rising temperatures favour the reproduction of CBB and, when rains arrive, the insect flies and affects new fruits.

To avoid a repeat scenario in PNG, Fairtrade producer organisations in the country’s Western Highlands province are trained in the process of implementing management plans that include post-harvest clearing of coffee berries from plots and gardens, developing traps with dispensers, and using an organic biological fungal spray to help eradicate the pest’s harmful trail of destruction.

Fairtrade Senior Producer Support and Relations Officer Will Valverde says the most important thing is educating farmers. “Our number one priority is producers and, by initiating immediate and long-term strategic solutions, we’re able to mitigate some of the threat posed by the CBB,” he says. “They’re not something that can be eradicated completely as there are so many variables, like environment and weather conditions. Producers have to live with CBB and exercise a degree of control to manage the risk.”

In the meantime, ASTCA’s Jan says the CBB outbreak in PNG is a firm reminder that Australia is not exempt from the threat: “It is essential that all parts of the industry – including green bean brokers, roasters and baristas – work collectively to protect our flourishing green coffee growers.”

This article features in the August 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here today:

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