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State must be leader in fight against pests

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A tiny beetle from Central Africa threatens the health of Hawaii’s $27 million coffee industry. But the beetle, known as the coffee berry borer, also provides a lesson in how the state can maintain and protect a strong diversified agriculture industry.

The borer, barely a brown speck, burrows into coffee berries and lays its eggs; most of them will hatch as female larvae that feed on the bean. The female borers eventually disperse, leaving behind the males and a degraded product. Left unchecked in the field, the borer reproduces at an alarming rate, sowing devastation in its wake.

Given that Hawaii coffee is a premium product grown on every major island, the response to this threat demonstrates the benefits of treating agriculture as a statewide asset, with oversight by state regulators applying common-sense, uniform rules.

So far, the beetle has been found on Hawaii island and Oahu; it has not been officially reported on Kauai and Maui. Strong measures are required to keep the beetle contained while allowing growers to sell their product statewide. Those measures should include hiring more state agricultural inspectors for both quarantine and quality control.

When the borer was discovered in Kona in 2010, and Kau the following year, coffee growers and the state Department of Agriculture acted in concert to fight back. The state placed a quarantine on Hawaii County, restricting the movement of green coffee beans, plants and equipment among the islands. Coffee growers adopted aggressive measures to contain the beetle, including use of organic fungal pesticides, freezing or heat treatments, increased inspections and removal of coffee berries on the ground, where the beetle likes to live.

On Hawaii Island, the efforts have paid off. Good management practices have contained the pest, although at a significant cost to growers. The state estimates that some farms have kept infestation down to about 20 percent of the crop.

Earlier this month, the beetles were found on Oahu, on Dole Food’s Waialua Estate Coffee Farms and at its mill. Apparently they had been enjoying an undisturbed life for a long time; they are dispersed throughout the 155-acre farm and were found accidentally, by researchers studying the flowering of coffee plants.

Again, the Agriculture Department and the grower acted. The same quarantine rules applied to Hawaii island now apply to Oahu. Dole has adopted control methods similar to other growers.

Nonetheless, the experience shows some weaknesses still inherent in Hawaii’s agricultural sector. Stricter inspection protocols and oversight by the Agriculture Department, supported with more resources, would help contain such destructive pests.

The industry itself must do more as well. More frequent inspections by Dole might have turned up the problem before it became widespread.

Furthermore, no one knows how the beetle got to Hawaii Island or Oahu. Making sure it doesn’t become widespread on Kauai or Maui will require more careful tracing of coffee shipments between the islands. Also, beefing up local agricultural research could lead to better ways to control pests in Hawaii, not just for coffee, but for other Hawaii crops now under siege, including beehives, taro and green leafy vegetables.

If local agricultural products are to move smoothly among the islands, regulations must be clear, predictable and effective. They can’t be applied piecemeal, county-by-county, as has been attempted through recent county anti-GMO ordinances.

Yes, some of the pest-fighting solutions require money, and there’s never enough of it. But given the choice between having a coffee industry or having the coffee berry borer, the payoff well exceeds the investment.

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