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Coffee Berry Borer in Hawai‘i- what can we expect?

October 17, 2010

On September 8th, the Hawai‘i Deparment of Agriculture officially announced that the coffee berry borer (a.k.a. CBB, broca, Hypothenemus hampei) had finally made it to Hawai‘i.  While the pest has probably been in Hawai‘i for at least a year (if not several), this is the first year it has been sighted in large and significant numbers (one farm reports 100% infestation!).  Currently, it is only found in Kona, on Hawai‘i Island.

This post is a summary of what this means for the Hawai‘i coffee industry.  I encourage you to leave comments on this post adding your thoughts and questioning my logic.  If we can foresee the possible paths this may lead us upon, we may be better able to prepare for the journey we actually take.

The CBB is a troublesome critter.  Under the best of circumstances, it reduces yields.  By "best", I mean for those farmers that are deliberate about their farming practices and the quality of the final product, the end result will be a loss of yield.  The other extreme is composed of farmers that aren't as careful, caring, or meticulous.  These farmers will lose yields, but they are likely to suffer from lower quality, too.  This will happen because they may not take enough effort to remove the damaged seeds from the lot.   

In the short term (2-4 years), I think Kona will struggle.  I suspect Kona will see a minimal loss of yields this season and probably not suffer much in terms of organoleptic quality.  As of now, the CBB is present, but not universally so and, in general, not in large numbers.  In other words, Kona has it, but the population isn't so large this season as to be devastating.  

Next season, one of two things will happen.  Pessimistically, Kona will be ravaged by the CBB, drastically reducing yields (at least 20-30%) and, on a decent percentage of farms (wild guess ~15%), quality of the green bean will be compromised.

This will happen if the government (USDA APHIS, USDA PBARC, HDOA, and the UH CTAHR) can't move fast enough to assist the farmers in all the ways they'll need it: education and resources, mostly.  This is not to say the government will be incompetent in any way.  Rather, government resources are stretched pretty thin right now and some of the resources farmers may need may not yet be available legally (e.g., Beauveria bassiana, a fungus shown to offer some control of the CBB).  The public sector is working hard right now to combat this pest; I know they are doing their very best to help the farmers (for the most current information, visit the HDOA’s CBB information page).  In fact, a task force has been created, composed of these government agencies, farmer associations, and processors, to coordinate the response to this terrible problem.  

Of course, even if a swift response is possible and we can remain two steps ahead of the CBB, nobody can force farmers to do anything.  So, even given infinite knowledge and resources, some farmers may not do what is necessary to control the CBB on their property.  If enough farmers aren't proactive, the region as a whole may suffer.

Optimistically, the government will be quick and clever and enough farmers will act accordingly.  If this happens, Kona may see yield losses of less than 10% and minimal to no diminishment of organoleptic quality.  We will likely never eradicate the CBB.  However, we can aim for a reasonable amount of control.

In all cases, farmers are going to see a loss of profits.  Both the loss of yields and the cost of control measures are going to hit their wallets (an overall drop in yields of 20% in Kona will reduce earnings by farmers by approximately $4,000,000).  If there's enough elasticity in the market, they may be able to offset this somewhat by increasing prices.  However, prices for Kona coffee are pretty high by most consumers' standards already.  Unfortunately, we have little knowledge of how consumers would respond to changes to the supply and price of Kona coffee.

In the medium to long term (4-10 years), the CBB may push some farmers out of business because of the cost or effort of control.  It may also push farmers out of business who aren't paying enough attention to quality and, consequently, can't find buyers for their coffee (cherry, green, or roasted).  This may take a few years to play out and, as it happens, the shake-up may alter the demographics of the Kona coffee farmer.

The long term, positive outcome of the CBB is that farmers will have to pay extra attention to the quality of their product.  Specifically, this means more farmers will improve their post-harvest sorting and grading of coffee.  More importantly, though, the smaller supply of Kona coffee without a commensurate decrease in demand will put a squeeze on supplies.  With less and more expensive coffee to go around, consumers will demand higher quality for what is available.  So, overall, the organoleptic quality of Kona coffee may increase (this is not implying that current quality levels are poor!).  This increase of quality, of course, will justify the higher prices necessary to keep farmers in business.

For the coffee industry as a whole, the arrival of CBB is probably "good" news in the short term (everybody would abdicate any goodness derived from the CBB's presence in lieu of having it anywhere in the state, trust me!).  The media coverage of the pest in Kona cues people to the Hawai‘i coffee industry in general.  With 5 islands and 8 or 10 (depending on how you count them) regions producing coffee, some folks may benefit from the attention.  Of course, with the supply of Kona coffee shrinking, the other regions may get a surge in sales.  In addition, if the HDOA puts a quarantine on Kona, roasters in other Hawai‘i regions may have a tough time getting green Kona.  As a consequence, those roasters will probably try to make up sales by pushing the other Hawai‘i regions.

Eventually, the CBB will make it to the other regions and islands; it is only a matter of time.  When that happens, the playing field will ultimately level out.  Any region suffering from CBB will suffer the same consequences I just enumerated for Kona.

Like almost every other coffee producing region in the world, we will have to live with this problem.  Hopefully, it will be neither devastating nor too damaging to the industry.  A lot of hard-working, intelligent people are working together to figure out how best to proceed.  I’m optimistic.



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