When the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlawed importing unroasted, green coffee into Hawaii in 1998, the purpose was clear: to protect one of the state’s prized cash crops from a nefarious beetle called the coffee berry borer.

But instead of following the strict federal policy, which appears to apply only to coffee sent directly from a foreign location, the Hawaii Department of Agriculture set a lower bar. If the coffee stops at another U.S. port first, under Hawaii law, it’s fine to come into Hawaii.

Now, 20 years later, the tiny beetle is devastating coffee farms across Hawaii, and farmers are pleading with state officials to follow the federal standards before farms get hit with another nasty pest — a fungus known as coffee leaf rust.

Kona coffee farmers are calling on the state to set its coffee import policy in line with federal laws designed to protect against invasive species. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

Bruce Corker, a retired lawyer and Kona coffee farmer, has been investigating why Hawaii Department of Agriculture opted to set a standard lower than the one set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He insists the state is violating the federal law. And he’s waiting for state and federal officials to produce information.

Janelle Saneishi, a spokeswoman for the HDOA, said the department responded to the farmers’ document request, stating how much it will cost to produce the requested documents. But she said the department has not heard back from the farmers.

Regardless, Corker said the state needs to act.

“If coffee rust comes to this state, that’s the end of Hawaii coffee,” said Corker, a board member of the Kona Coffee Farmers Association, a trade group of Hawaii island growers. “That’s going to be the end of coffee production in this state.”

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture said its policies are good enough to protect the state from pests like the coffee berry borer and leaf rust.

Janelle Saneishi, a spokeswoman for the HDOA, said the department worked with the industry “to collectively agree to develop and implement strict safeguards and mitigation measures to ensure that green coffee was used only for roasting and imported under a level of acceptable risk.”

The agreement, she said, includes numerous safeguards. Green coffee can be used only for roasting, needs a state permit to transport, is subjected to a department-approved treatment in the U.S. Mainland and must be found free of pests before being released, among other things.

And the policies have worked, she said. Even after coffee berry borer was discovered in 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated and found the bug had not been brought in with coffee that had been properly treated, Saneishi said.

Although it’s not clear precisely how the coffee berry borer got here, DNA tests indicate the ones in Hawaii came from Costa Rica, said Mark Wright, a professor of entomology at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. He said someone might have smuggled green coffee in without treating it.

“It seems someone brought in green coffee that was infested, and we had an invasion,” Wright said.

Smaller than a flea, the tiny coffee berry borer, shown here with damaged beans at a University of Hawaii lab, have done significant damage to Hawaii crops. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

A point of contention is whether the current treatment, fumigating green coffee with a chemical called ethyl bromide, is adequate.

Corker notes the U.S. Department of Agriculture years ago found that ethyl bromide fumigation wasn’t enough to ensure Hawaii’s coffee could be protected from coffee berry borer. Complete quarantine was called for. So the original bugs might have hitched a ride on coffee that was fumigated, Corker said.

What’s not in dispute is that the berry borer is here.

“It’s the worst coffee pest in the world, and it requires extensive management,” Wright said.

Despite the damage caused by coffee berry borer and risks posed by coffee leaf rust, some see no need to quit importing green beans.

A case in point is Hawaii Coffee Co.

Although the company describes itself as the world’s largest Kona coffee roaster, it also imports green beans from elsewhere, roasts and packages them and sells them as Hawaii brands, like Lion Coffee, or blended with 10 percent coffee from Kona or other Hawaii sources. The company partners with local celebrity chefs like Alan Wong and Sam Choy to sell 10 percent blends bearing their names.

Gerard Bastiaanse, the company’s president, said Hawaii Coffee Co. recognizes the coffee berry borer has caused significant damage to Hawaii’s coffee industry. He said the company has worked to educate farmers about the pest and takes steps to mitigate risks from imported beans by fumigating all coffee it imports and transporting it immediately to roasting facilities so it can’t come into contact with farms.

There’s no evidence that properly fumigated coffee poses any risk, he said.  He said the company imports coffee from elsewhere in part so consumers can have a choice of whether to buy Hawaii-grown coffee of coffee from other places. He wouldn’t say what percentage of the company’s coffee is grown in Hawaii.

Growers Versus Processors

It’s nothing new to see the Hawaii processors and farmers feuding.

In fact, the current argument marks the latest round in tensions that date back years.  For more than a decade, some Kona farmers have been pushing for tougher labeling requirements, saying 10 percent blends shouldn’t be allowed to carry the Kona label, which state law now allows.

The tensions were so heated at times that small farmers in 2006 accused the processors of hijacking the leadership of another trade association, the Kona Coffee Council, by collecting proxy votes from people who had never attended meetings and who never voted in person.

After the new council leadership sandbagged efforts for tougher labels, a group of growers started Kona Coffee Farmers Association in 2006.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green is familiar with the coffee wars, which he said went on during the entire 14 years he represented Big Island districts, first as a state representative and later as a senator. He said the first priority should be to protect the crops.

“We can’t be environmentally lax with one of the most important crops we’ve got here,” Green said. And that could mean tougher import restrictions given the potential double-whammy that could hit farmers if leaf rust also comes to the state.

“If we’re going to import it, we’ll wipe ourselves out if we’re not careful,” he said.

Gov. David Ige said his administration is working with the USDA and businesses to make sure the companies have enough coffee to sell and that pests aren’t being being brought in with the green beans.

“I’m looking forward to the day when local farmers are able to grow and supply enough coffee for our own local use and export,” he said.

For some local coffee aficionados, the choice is simple: err on the side of caution and follow the tougher, federal law.

Dustin Tanabe, a barista with The Curb coffee house in Kaimuki, said he thinks the state should follow the tougher federal standard when regulating green coffee imports. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

“If the farmers think they should follow the federal law, I would agree with them,” said Dustin Tanabe, a 26-year-old barista at The Curb in Kaimuki. The state’s current policy “really disturbs me and scares me as someone who serves coffee and loves coffee.”

In the Insect Ecology and Integrated Pest Management Lab at the University of Hawaii Manoa, Mark Wright is leading a team trying to find a way to fight the coffee berry borer. The room is full of scientific equipment like microscopes and specimens of dead bugs stuck onto needles lined up in trays.

Coffee berry borers are black specks, smaller than fleas. But they punch above their weight when it comes to inflicting damage on coffee orchards. The tiny bugs burrow into coffee berries and lay their eggs, Wright said, and the larvae eat the berries from the inside.

Helping Farmers Fight Pests

One current treatment involves spraying fields with a fungus called Beauveria bassiana that’s been commercialized as BotaniGard. Recognizing that the coffee berry borer “threatens the viability of Hawaii’s entire coffee industry,” the Legislature in 2014 set up a program to subsidize farmers struggling to control the pest.

Another option is to remove the coffee berries from an infested field, Wright said. But that’s especially difficult in Hawaii, where lava rocks on the ground have crevices where infested berries can hide.

“If you don’t pick them up in the field,” he said, “you’ll have an immediate source of reinfestation.”

Wright is working on another potential solution: a tiny wasp that likes to prey on coffee berry borers. When a coffee berry borer tries to dig into the coffee berry to lay its eggs, the wasp attacks and lays its own eggs in the borer. The borer is then eaten alive from the inside by the wasp larvae.

“It stays alive for a while,” Wright said of the infested coffee berry borer, “but eventually succumbs to the effects of being eaten.”

Wright and his team have wasps in a quarantine lab testing to make sure there won’t be unintended consequences if they turn the wasps loose on the coffee berry borers. So far, Wright said, the tests are promising: the wasp doesn’t have an appetite for anything but the borers.

Feds Reject Request To Allow Imports

While Wright’s team is working on solutions, Corker and fellow Kona farmer Sandra Scarr are trying find out how Hawaii came to adopt a policy inconsistent with the one created by the federal government’s agriculture experts.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture adopted the regulation prohibiting coffee imports into Hawaii in 1998, as part of its “Foreign Quarantine” restrictions. Around 2005, according to an environmental assessment produced by the USDA, Hawaii asked the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to change the regulation to allow Hawaii to import coffee as long as it was treated.

The feds turned down the request.

“Neither the methyl bromide fumigation nor moist heat treatments as currently proposed in the docket are efficacious against the two major pests of concern coffee bean borer and coffee leaf rust,” Alan Green, APHIS’ Plant Health Programs’ executive director, wrote in a 2006 letter to Lyle Wong, an administrator with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

The import prohibition applies only to Hawaii and Puerto Rico because they are the only places that have coffee crops that could be harmed by the pest.

What prompted the state of Hawaii’s request isn’t entirely clear. Wong passed away in 2018. And the federal and state agriculture departments have not responded to Corker’s and Scarr’s public records requests. The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

While the federal law prohibits green coffee imports, those restrictions appear to apply only to foreign imports, not coffee that passed through, say California, on the way here.

The regulation is part of a regulatory regime on “Foreign Quarantine,” for example. Several of the related regulations specifically say they pertain only to products being brought into the United States. And there are no regulations specifically citing interstate transportation in the regulations.

Coffee processors import green coffee beans, roast them and use them for brands like Lion Coffee. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

Corker disagrees with that interpretation. He says the regulation prohibits bringing in coffee from anywhere. He notes that the regulation simply bans the “importation” of coffee into Hawaii. That means it applies to all imports, including interstate imports, he said.

In addition, he said if the federal law didn’t prohibit all coffee imports into Hawaii, why would state officials have asked the feds to change it?

Scarr has posted an article on the Kona Coffee Farmers Association website saying bringing coffee into Hawaii violates federal law.

“The fact of their importation first into the mainland does not obviate their threat to Hawaii’s coffee crops or the violation of federal regulation against unroasted green beans being imported into Hawaii from any source,” she wrote.

Despite the impasse, Green sees a potential opportunity to strike a compromise on broader issues, such as labeling requirements. The roasters certainly have an interest in protecting Kona coffee, Green said, even as they want to continue to import green coffee.

And many farmers still chafe at a bag of coffee being called “Kona” when nine out of ten beans inside come from somewhere else.

“Maybe this is a way to bring the two sides together,” he said.

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