UPDATE 1-Central American coffee fungus could cost industry $500 mln
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SAN JOSE, Feb 19 (Reuters) - The spread of the tree-killing fungus roya is expected to cost Central America's coffee industry roughly half a billion dollars in the current 2012/13 harvesting season, a statement released by the region's agriculture ministers says.
The agriculture ministers from each of Central America's major coffee-producing countries plus the Dominican Republic met on the outskirts of the Costa Rican capital of San Jose on Tuesday to flesh out a regional response to the worsening roya outbreak.
"The (regional) economic impact has been quantified at $500 million," Honduran Agriculture Minister Jacobo Regalado said after the meeting adjourned, adding that 500,000 farmers have been affected.
In remarks following their meeting, the ministers underscored the severity of the outbreak.
"The problem is quite serious and not just at a regional level, but individually in each country," said Guatemalan Agriculture Minister Elmer Lopez. "We cannot face this problem in isolation."
Ministers agreed on a short-term plan to publish a manual of best practices to prevent the further spread of the fungus, as well as agreeing on the need to plant roya-resistant coffee trees in the years ahead.
A deputy agriculture minister from Mexico also attended the forum, although the Mexican government said earlier this month that its roya outbreak is less severe.
Gloria Abraham, Costa Rica's agriculture minister, said the forum's goals are to "reduce the percentage of the crop affected (by roya) but also improve the accuracy of forecasts and the monitoring of the behavior of agricultural and climate variables."
The Central American agricultural council, headed by Abraham, is expected to announce a new proposal to address the regional roya outbreak in the next few weeks, with the expectation that it will be adopted by late March, according to a statement.
Guatemala's agriculture ministry, meanwhile, said it expects some of its coffee farmers to shift to other crops, including tomatoes and blackberries, due to the rising costs of coffee production.
According to data from the regional coffee organization, PROMECAFE, the 2012/13 crop will be 20 percent smaller than the organization's previous estimate. PROMECAFE added that slightly more than half of the region's coffee-growing areas have been infected, but that a third of the infected plants are still salvageable.
Last month, Central America's major coffee export organization, ORCECA, said roya, or coffee leaf rust, would cause the current harvest to shrink by 16 percent from the previous harvest.
Mexico and all of Central America's five top coffee producing countries, home to more than one-fifth of the world's arabica coffee crop, have confirmed roya outbreaks this season.
(Reporting by Isabella Cota; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer; and Peter Galloway)