The coffee berry borer beetle is going to impact coffee quality, reduce yields and put some Hawaii farms out of business. All humans can hope to do is limit the damage.

Faced with the news that one of the islands’ biggest crops is under attack from the “world’s most destructive coffee pest,” the state government is leaping into action.

But a proposed quarantine to restrict the movement of some coffee products from the already-infested Kona area of the Big Island to uninfested areas of the state is not a cure-all and is just the first step in the battle, industry experts and state officials say.

At a meeting Wednesday, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture‘s Advisory Committee on Plants and Animals will review the quarantine proposal [pdf]. Its recommendations will go to the Board of Agriculture, which is scheduled to meet later this month and could approve an interim rule change — valid for no longer than one year — to implement the quarantine.

Next year, the Hawaii Legislature could take a look at longer-range rules. Rep. Clift Tsuji, a Hilo Democrat and chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said the state “must reinforce our ports of entry,” lamenting that agricultural inspections have fallen off in the last year after a reduction in force due to budget woes.

“It is also very important that this interim proposal be made as rapidly as possible to protect the Kona area … and all of the uninfested islands and other localities within the Big Island,” Tsuji told Civil Beat Monday.

“The coffee industry in Hawaii has a history spanning 200 years, and we don’t want to see it collapse because of our inattention to contain or eradicate the coffee berry borer infestation,” Tsuji said in a press release from his office and the state Department of Agriculture.

Beetle in 53 Countries

The coffee berry borer is native to Central Africa but has found its way to at least 53 countries around the globe, according to the International Coffee Organization. Hawaii — one of the last remaining coffee-growing locales to avoid contact with the tiny beetle — confirmed infestation [pdf] in September.

“This is terrible news for our important coffee industry,” Hawaii Board of Agriculture Chair Sandra Lee Kunimoto said in a press release that called the berry borer “one of the most devastating coffee pests.”

A subsequent Department of Agriculture announcement called it “the world’s most destructive coffee pest” and said the beetle causes about $500 million of damage each year in an industry worth about $90 billion. In Hawaii, some 600 independent farms spanning 6,500 acres produce between 6 million and 7 million pounds of coffee each year, the department said.

If left uncontrolled, the beetle could quickly reach all corners of Hawaii and result in the loss of 20 to 30 percent of the state’s coffee yield, according to Shawn Steiman, who holds a Ph.D. in Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences from the University of Hawaii, owns a consulting firm called Coffea Consulting and authored The Hawaii Coffee Book: A Gourmet’s Guide from Kona to Kauai.

If growers try to use beans infested with the beetle, the quality of the coffee will go down. And if they throw those beans away, the yield will drop. Some farms are reportedly already suffering 100 percent infestation — meaning every coffee plant, if not every berry, has beetles inside.

“I think it will ruin some people,” Steiman said. “There’s a handful of pests and diseases in the world that are really nasty, and this is one of them.”

Beetle’s Path to Hawaii Unknown

It’s not clear how the beetle found its way to Hawaii.

The state says its importation rules — for those beans that arrive through legal channels, anyway — require fumigation that would kill the pests. Because dried beans don’t have the moisture content to sustain the beetles, it’s believed that only green beans could serve as the transport.

Kona Coffee Farmers Association President Bruce Corker told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he believes the beetles entered Hawaii in green coffee beans imported without adequate controls.

Some aren’t so sure. Steiman said it takes a lot less time for a person to travel to Hawaii than it does for a seed to arrive on a ship.

Elsie Burbano, a Ph.D. entomology student at the University of Hawaii, said many of the coffee pickers in Hawaii hail from countries that have the pest and that many materials are brought over from those countries, but said there are “different possibilities” for how the beetle arrived. Burbano is studying both the berry borer, Hypothenemus hampei, and the black twig borer, Xylosandrus compactus.

Regardless of how they arrived, it’s apparent that the coffee berry borers are firmly entrenched.

Systematic surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Hawaii Department of Agriculture have confirmed the beetle at 21 farms in the South Kona District of the Big Island as of mid-November.

Nov. 3 Survey Results

Area Surveyed Positive for
Coffee Borer Beetle
Big Island 66 21 (all in Kona area)
Maui 29 0
Oahu 6 0
Lanai 3 0
Kauai 2 0
Molokai 1 0
Statewide 107 21 (all in Kona area)

Source: Hawaii Department of Agriculture survey

So far, other regions of the Big Island and the rest of the Hawaiian Islands have yet to be infested. The state wants to keep it that way.

Quarantine Would Require Permits

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Branch has already requested a quarantine that would require a permit to move coffee plants, parts, bags and unroasted seeds out of the Kona area. That’s the proposal on the table Wednesday.

But even a quarantine, which would fumigate every green bean transported out of Kona, would not necessarily stop the beetle in its tracks.

“You can only do so much to control nature, and Hawaii’s a pretty small place,” Steiman said. “Even if you do the quarantine, I suspect personally that it will still find its way.”

Burbano, the University of Hawaii entomology student, said while the beetles spend the majority of their lives inside the beans, they can survive for brief periods outside as well.

“I’m pretty sure that if you take a beetle in your pocket from Kona to Oahu, it will survive for a couple of days, maybe more,” she said. Asked if she agreed with the proposed quarantine, she said she’d share her opinion at the meeting Wednesday.

“I think it’s bad because it’s a lot of resources for something I’m not convinced is effective,” Steiman said. “To have every coffee that’s sent to Maui or Oahu for roasting (inspected), that adds cost and effort and resources. And economically, that’s one more thing that makes our coffee that much more expensive.”

Quarantine or no, there are steps that farmers can take to protect themselves.

The beetles bore into the coffee cherry to lay their eggs and the larvae feed on the beans inside, making them difficult to control with pesticides. But there are ways to limit the infestation.

H.C. “Skip” Bittenbender, extension specialist for coffee and kava at the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, sent out a number of recommendations for growers to lessen the borer’s impact:

  • Reduce heavy shade and prune the bush to create a less humid environment for the beetle
  • Pick at least once a week in the main harvest season and once a month at other times to prevent over-ripe infested cherries falling to the ground where adult females can survive and attack out-of-season cherries
  • All infested cherries should be destroyed by burning, deep burying or, if possible, rapid sun-drying
  • Before a main flowering, the crop should be stripped completely

Steiman said there are two other steps growers can take to reduce the beetles’ impact. Alcohol traps have been effective in other areas for the berry borer and helpful in Hawaii for a cousin, the twig borer. And there’s also a naturally occurring fungus that other countries have used to attack the beetle. If made into a liquid concentrate and sprayed on the plants, the fungus could be “a biological control that is not 100 percent effective but seems to be very useful,” he said.

The commercial formula isn’t yet allowed in Hawaii, but there are certain strains of similar fungi that exist here, and there are no synthetic chemicals, Steiman said. There is some wariness about allowing unregulated use, but there have been conversations about creating a permit, he said. Combined with Bittenbender’s techniques and alcohol or other traps, the fungus could reduce the yield loss to just 2 to 5 percent, he said.

But with those additional efforts come additional costs. Steiman said a farmer in Puerto Rico told him that coffee berry borer beetle control adds a dollar per pound to the cost of his coffee. And while the extra effort and cost will undoubtedly hurt many coffee farmers, there could be light at the end of the tunnel.

“Coffee is pretty labor-intensive and love-intensive,” Steiman said. Those who don’t have the time, energy or money to deal with the new pest properly might be forced to close their doors, that “culling of the herd” would allow only the strong to survive.

The evolution could position Hawaii’s coffee industry to be stronger in five years, “both as a community and as a specialty product,” something Steiman says would be a “fortunate result of an unfortunate situation.”

About the Author