The state is now one step closer to segregating world-famous Kona coffee from the rest of the islands in an effort to limit the spread of one of the world’s worst pests: the coffee berry borer beetle.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Advisory Committee on Plants and Animals unanimously approved at its meeting Wednesday afternoon a recommendation that the Board of Agriculture implement an interim rule. The rule would require permits — and costly mitigation methods like heat treatment or methyl bromide fumigation — before unroasted coffee seeds can move between Kona and the rest of the state.

Despite the hassle, some in Kona testified in favor of the quarantine.

“I’m not asking, ‘Please put more financial impact on our company’ … but I’m thinking about the farmers throughout the rest of Hawaii,” Hawaii Coffee Association President Tom Greenwell, owner of Greenwell Farms in Kona, told the committee. “They’re good people. … I believe they’d be devastated.”

Before they could approve the recommendation, the committee needed to first acknowledge one unfortunate reality: the pest presents an “emergency” so dangerous that special rule-making procedures are required. Waiting for legislative action or even the normal course of statewide public hearings would just take too long.

Though the votes to both declare an emergency and take action were unanimous, the hours-long discussion was not without contention.

Attempting to undermine the idea that Hawaii is in an emergency, the main voice of opposition, Kona Coffee Farmers Association President Bruce Corker, said he’d heard that the beetle has been in Hawaii for decades without spreading widely.

But entomologists, including Department of Agriculture Plant Pest Control Branch Manager Neil Reimer, said otherwise: The beetle has likely been in Hawaii only one or two years. Its presence in Kona was first confirmed in early September.

Corker warned that a quarantine could seriously diminish his product’s value, saying that “the risk is that Kona coffee’s reputation in those markets will be permanently damaged and the price that we recieve might plummet and coffee might not be a profitable crop in Kona.” Fumigation would eliminate the possibility of any Kona coffee being deemed organic.

“We hope you don’t use the word ‘quarantine.’ We’d rather see ‘protective measures,'” Corker said.

Though some of Corker’s assertions were rejected, that final point was taken to heart. Before approving the original version of the recommendations [pdf], the committee amended one line referring to “approved treatment, such as Methyl Bromide, Profume (or) heat treatment at 315 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 5 minutes” to include the phrase “other mitigation methods.” The distinction opens the door a little wider to alternative regulations.

Of about 20 people in attendance, just a handful testified. In addition to Corker, a Kau coffee farmer expressed concern about the impact of a quarantine on her operation. A Maui coffee roaster supported the proposal, and Hawaii Coffee Company President Jim Wayman said there was a sense of urgency.

“If we have to err on the side of being conservative, and we need to put this up right away until we know how fast it’s going to spread, then that’s what we need to do,” Wayman said.

The recommendation will now go to the Board of Agriculture, which is scheduled to meet Tuesday morning at 8 a.m.

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