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A troubled crop November 29th, 2015 by

Many people don’t realize that pests and diseases can wipe out a major crop in a country. In 1874, when coffee rust entered what is now Sri Lanka, the British colonial government struggled in vain to find a cure for the disease. Most of the coffee plants died and by 1889 coffee production had fallen from 45 million kgs to a mere 2.3 million kgs. The thriving coffee industry was replaced with tea.

French wine was headed for extinction in the 1850s, when it was attacked by Phylloxera, a tiny, aphid-like insect that was infesting and killing the roots of European grapes. French and American agronomists collaborated to find American rootstock that was resistant to Phylloxera, and by the 1870s and 1880s, France salvaged its wine industry by grafting native vines onto American rootstock. Even today, French grape vines have American roots.

plantación de cardamomoNow Guatemala is poised on the edge of a disaster with cardamom, a spice crop which has been grown in the Central American country for over 100 years, and is the fourth largest earner of foreign exchange for Guatemala. The crop earned Guatemala $308 million in 2010. Central Americans don’t cook with cardamom, and nearly all of their harvest is exported, especially to the Middle East and South Asia.

Thousands of farm families depend on cardamom, which ripens slowly and unevenly, so smallholders can harvest some fruits every few days to buy clothes and medicines. The crop is ideally suited to the cool, tropical highlands.

Thrips cardamon croppedA cardamom virus arrived in 1975 and has already wiped out the crop in Quetzaltenango, in the southwest of the country. In just the past few years, Guatemalan cardamom has also acquired a weevil and a tiny, black insect about the size of a pinhead, called the cardamom thrips. It entered Guatemala in 2012, probably from India, the homeland of cardamom. As the thrips feeds, it leaves scars on the berry-like fruit. Most of the damage is invisible until processors dry the cardamom (like making raisins from grapes). Then the dried fruit that is damaged by thrips is clearly twisted and smaller, and less attractive for consumers.

Some farmers are now starting to use insecticide on a crop that has never known chemicals.

In spite of cardamom’s importance, Guatemala never established any research to support it. (The way that Colombia did with coffee, and Ghana did with cacao, for instance). This makes cardamom especially vulnerable to new pests and diseases. Some isolated researchers and international volunteers are trying to learn about these new problems and offer a solution, but when research starts from zero it may not find a solution in time.

As other countries like Colombia and Costa Rica now start to produce cardamom, the Guatemalans are finding that sometimes they have inventory left on their hands, bags of fine cardamom that go unsold at the end of the season. That never used to happen. They say that until two years ago there was such a demand for cardamom that even the dust from the processing plants could be sold for something. Those days are over. It is too soon to tell if Guatemalan cardamom will adapt or die, but a colorful chapter is ending and another is starting.

Important crops need dedicated researchers. Under certain threats, even an important commercial crop can become locally extinct. This is a case where tropical countries have a lot to offer each other: the so called “south-south exchange”. Researchers from India could no doubt be a lot of help to the Guatemalans. And one day the Colombians and the Costa Ricans may find that they need a hand from Guatemala, if the Guatemalans can solve their thrips problema.

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