BOGOTA, COLOMBIA--(Marketwire - Mar 25, 2013) -  Earlier this week, Starbucks announced its purchase of a 600-acre farm in Costa Rica where the company plans to develop new varieties of coffee trees. The coffee giant wants to bring innovations to the region, including looking for ways to protect the trees from coffee leaf rust, a plant disease that has plagued farmers throughout Latin America. 

This effort will complement other actions that have been in place in Colombia for several decades. As home to the world's best coffee, it's no surprise that Colombia is also home to one of the world's largest and most renowned research centers: Cenicafé. For the last 70 years, scientists there have made numerous discoveries that have aided the coffee industry, including the Castillo coffee tree, a tree that is already coffee-leaf rust resistant.

While most of Latin America is reeling from the devastation brought on by coffee leaf rust, Colombia's coffee production is on the rise. This is thanks to a production partnership strategy developed by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC). The FNC has helped farmers renovate their farms with Castillo trees. Since the implementation of this strategy, rust infection levels have fallen eight-fold, from more than 40% in 2010 to a manageable 5% today.

"Our long-term goal is to not have people worry about the rust problem, and the easiest way to achieve this is to change the variety, a variety that is resistant to the rust and will be able to defend itself," said Alvaro Gaitán, a lead scientist at Cenicafé.

Cenicafé scientists created the Castillo tree using traditional plant breeding techniques. The variety is the result of cross-breeding the Caturra tree with the Timor Hybrid. The Castillo's genetic make-up remains very close to that of the Caturra plant since it took more than five generations of cross breeding, meaning it maintains its aromatic flavor and productivity attributes, while keeping the very important trait of being leaf rust-resistant. 

The new variety also produces a mildness that is usually only gained from crops grown in the mountains of Colombia's coffee growing regions. Coffees from these areas are known for their combination of acidity, balance and body -- attributes highly valued by coffee-lovers.

Besides their exceptional taste and resilience, the new varieties also are more productive. Many connoisseurs have concluded that this late-generation variety produces higher quality beans than other varieties. The bean size and density provide a more balanced flavor, as well as an easier roasting process that improves coffee growers' incomes.

Colombia produced 7.8 million bags of 60 kilos (132 pounds) of green coffee in 2012. This year's Colombian harvest is expected to exceed 10 million bags. In search of a more sustainable tomorrow for Colombia's coffee growers, the Colombian Government and the FNC have developed an intensive plant renewal program that will increase coffee plantation yields. Consequently, Colombia´s production will begin to recover as the new plantations move into the production phase.

"The Coffee Growers Federation is a solid institution that covers almost the entire country, and has the ability to coordinate powerful programs to accomplish large scale changes," said Gaitán, who stated that in order to attain a change of this caliber, seeds, credit lines, technical assistance and many other components would be needed simultaneously to reach crop-renewal goals. Without Cenicafé's research innovation, Colombia would be facing the same coffee phytosanitary situation currently being experienced by many other Latin American countries. 

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Liza Rodriguez