Blight Flight

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Blight Flight

A COUPLE OF THE FINER THINGS IN LIFE are under attack. Environmental calamities in Central America and Italy are devastating their coffee and olive industries, respectively, resulting in drastic drops in production there and higher prices and increased scarcity here. 

A three-year infestation of the coffee rust fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) is decimating the Central American Arabica coffee bean crop (which accounts for up to 80 percent of the world’s production), causing an estimated $1 billion damages in one year alone. Rain and heavy winds at the end of 2014 helped spread the fungus, and pressure to increase production of high-end Arabica beans caused many coffee growers to thin out overhead canopies, which allowed more sunlight to stream down. In a good example of how complex the ecosystem of a coffee farm can be, the sunlight killed the white halo fungus (Lecanicillium lecanii), one of nature’s best defenses against coffee rust.

Officials in Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica have declared national emergencies because of the crop damage; in El Salvador, forecasted production has been cut 33 percent. Production in Guatemala may be down as much as 40 percent.

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Marnie and Don MacClean, owners of Thompson-Finch Farm in Ancram, own a coffee plantation in Puerto Rico and have seen the damage. “It’s pretty much all over the island—we have a friend down there who lost all of his coffee,” says Marnie, whose organic farm on the island has thus far been spared. “A lot of the larger growers have actually cut [all] their coffee down and replanted what they hope are resistant varieties.”

Thus far, coffee prices have not severely spiked because coffee companies have enough backup inventory or are substituting other beans in their blends. Eventually, however, prices could reach “extraordinary” highs or supplies could be cut completely, according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

In Italy, the fight is against Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterial infection ravaging the country’s olive trees. “My mother has an olive farm 45 kilometers northwest of Rome,” says chef Francesco Buitoni, of Mercato Osteria & Enoteca in Red Hook. “Usually I get shipments twice a year—this year there’s a lot less. I probably have only 30 percent of what I had the year before.”

The blight originated in southern Italy, but has begun to spread. Some experts fear it will eventually sweep past the Italian border into central Europe, and the European Union has urged Italian olive growers to cut down any infected trees. Italian olive oil production is expected to drop by a third this year, and producers and distributors are looking for other ways to fulfill the demand. “Companies are buying olive oil from Morocco and Tunisia and other countries and blending it and calling it ‘Italian,’ but it’s not,” Buitoni warns. “Look at the label—it may say Italian extra-virgin, but then you read the fine print on the bottle, it’ll say ‘olives from Morocco, Tunisia, Spain.’“

Complicating matters is a drought in Spain, the world’s largest producer of olive oil. According to the Olive Oil Council, demand for olive oil has risen 60 percent over the last 20 years, but the current environmental events will force production down 30 to 40 percent. Something’s got to give, Buitoni says. “I’ll only use [Italian olive oil] for salad dressing or certain dishes—I have to make it last longer,” he notes. “I can’t use it as freely as I used to.”

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