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Hawaii nonprofit gets $6M to tackle coffee leaf rust

The Maui News

A Hawaii organization will receive a $6 million grant from a federal agricultural program to address coffee leaf rust, a pathogen that’s been found in all four counties.

The state’s congressional delegation — U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz and U.S. Reps. Ed Case and Kai Kahele — announced Thursday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Research Initiative grants program would provide $6,007,090 to the nonprofit Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council.

The five main objectives of the grant include breeding rust-resistant varieties of coffee, surveying spread and identifying field management options for farmers to use to protect existing coffee trees, identifying fungicides or biological control methods to combat coffee leaf rust, genomic work on coffee leaf rust and economic analyses of domestically grown coffee.

“Over the past year our more than 1,400 coffee growers in Hawaii have been dealing with one of the greatest threats to their industry,” Hirono said in a news release. “This funding will help bring together leading experts in coffee research to protect one of our most iconic crops, so coffee can continue contributing to our local economy and culture.”

Coffee leaf rust is a devastating fungus that up until last year was present in every coffee-growing region of the world except Hawaii. It was first detected on Hawaii island and Maui in October 2020 and has since been confirmed on Lanai, Molokai, Oahu and Kauai.

When the pathogen was discovered in Hawaii, the state’s congressional delegation sent a letter to then-USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue requesting federal assistance, according to the news release. They also introduced the Coffee Plant Health Initiative Amendments Act earlier this year that would expand research funding to address current and emerging threats to coffee plant health.

The four-year grant announced Thursday will support a coordinated approach to addressing coffee leaf rust across various entities, including the USDA Agricultural Research Service Daniel K. Inouye U.S. Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center, USDA’s Tropical Agriculture Research Station in Puerto Rico, University of Hawaii, University of Puerto Rico, as well as Purdue University and Michigan State University.

Synergistic Hawaii Agriculture Council Director Suzanne Shriner said that the grant “will fund a consortium of scientists and address the problem on the ground for farmers” in both Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

“Research will focus on immediate solutions for growers affected by CLR (coffee leaf rust), through field management of the disease,” Shriner said. “In addition, the grant will fund long-term breeding of trees resistant to CLR, focusing on quality in the cup to meet the high standard of Kona and Hawaiian coffees. In addition, expansion of genomic research will assist the global coffee industry in understanding and combating the fungus. Finally, economic analyses of all activities will help our growers, large and small, determine which solutions are best for their farms.”

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