Colombia coffee exports at risk, due to red spider mites

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red spider mite

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Who knew that little critters no bigger than a thumbtack could wreak so much havoc?

Reuters tells the worrisome story of Colombian farmer Jairo Morales. He’s devastated because his coffee trees are speckled with crimson as tiny red spider mites attack his plantation. This chaos is not only threatening his livelihood, but also the output of the world’s No. 3 coffee growing country.

The mites cling to the leaves of coffee plants and gradually turn them reddish until they wither and die.

The news agency says the threat comes at a time when Colombia is struggling to increase annual coffee output to 11 million 60-kg sacks, the country’s long-term average.

The tiny creatures have always been a menace to coffee crops in the country, but other predator insects have usually kept them at bay.

“This has been a surprise. I’d never seen anything like this in the many years that I’ve been growing coffee. I often see small areas by the side of the road, but never an attack like this,” Morales told Reuters.

Red spider mites have reportedly attacked many plantations in Caldas, the No. 4 coffee producing region in Colombia. This area contributes about 10 percent to the country’s total coffee output.

Morales told Reuters he suspects that the increasing number of spider mites could be a consequence of the ashes that covered the area after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano eruption in June, which apparently killed the insects that prey on the arachnids: “The risk is that they ‘burn’ the leaves and it takes a long time for the plants to recover. If the coffee trees fail to grow branches and flower we’ll lose the crop that we’re about to harvest and we can lose next year’s because they will not flower.”

Colombia, the world’s top producer of high quality arabica beans. There are reports that it has missed its annual coffee production goals for three consecutive years due to torrential rain brought on by the weather phenomenon La Nina.

Heavy rain prevents flowering, which last year resulted in a reduced output or 7.8 million sacks, the lowest in three decades, reports Reuters. Production this year is expected to be around 8 million bags.

Farmers have launched a fierce fight against these red spider mites. They’ve been fumigating plantations, but the process is quite pricey. Reuters says the additional expense raises production costs at a time of lower revenues due to a drop in global coffee prices and compounded by the appreciation of the Colombian peso.

The stronger local currency adversely affects growers who must cover their costs in pesos while receiving U.S. dollars for their exports.

Marcelo Salazar, a member of the Caldas coffee growers committee told Reuters that despite efforts to contain the pest, spider mites will likely diminish total output in the region: “It could cut output by as much as 30 percent, it could cause damage because the leaves fall, the trees do not grow beans, the coffee could have lower quality. And that would be awful now that we’ve got problems with the prices and hardships stemming from global warming.”

The pest will likely cut into the income for some of the 560,000 families that depend on growing coffee for a living in Colombia.

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