New Delhi/Kochi: After a gap of two decades, the government is poised to release a new variety of coffee seed that is resistant to leaf rust, a disease that leads to the withering away of the leaf.

It was developed at the Central Coffee Research Institute (CCRI), a government-sponsored institution located in Karnataka.

“This is after 21 years that a new coffee variety has been developed in the country. This variety will be an integral part of the replantation programme for coffee that the government is embarking on," said Jairam Ramesh, minister of state for commerce.

The newly developed seed has higher leaf retention. Leaf rust affects both the quality and ­production as it reduces the photosynthetic capacity of infected leaves and leads to premature defoliation

Still to be named, the new variety has higher leaf retention quality which results in higher production and will be ready for commercial plantation early next year.

“About five years of work was put (into the seed) here (CCRI) and is likely to be released in December. More than 500 coffee planters have already done field trials with this variety," Ramesh added.

Venkat Ramanan, joint director, CCRI, said: “This variety, which was developed through a series of evaluations, was to a large extent resistant to leaf rust which generally affects the Arabica variety of coffee plants."

Of the total coffee production of 288,000 tonnes during 2006-07, Arabica comprised one third or 99,700 tonnes, with Robusta comprising 188,000 tonnes.

Arabica is the aromatic and premium variety of coffee and accounts for over two-thirds of the world’s coffee production. Leaf rust affects both the quality and production as it reduces the photosynthetic capacity of infected leaves and leads to premature defoliation.

“Leaf rust-associated defoliation and the strong carbohydrate sink of the berries cause shoots and roots to starve and consequently to dieback, thereby reducing the number of nodes on which coffee will be produced next year," said Stephen A. Ferreira, extension plant pathologist and Rebecca A. Boley, educational specialist in the Department of Plant Pathology, University of Hawaii, in a research paper published on the Internet.

“Researchers have estimated losses caused by rust between 30 and 80%. On average, however, losses are believed to be about 15% annually," they ­added.

To tackle this problem, coffee growers in India spray pesticides, which are not only unhealthy but also of varying efficacy depending on prevailing weather conditions. For instance, spraying proves futile during the monsoon, when leaf rust is most prevalent.

Jeffery Rebello, chairman of the Karnataka Planters Association, said: “While there is no official statistic on the crop loss due to the disease, the withering away of the leaves largely affects the coffee bloom cycle."

Ramesh also said this new variety will add to India’s competitive edge in the international market. India exported 250,000 tonnes of coffee in 2006-07 (around 80% of total production) to over 40 countries, with more than half of it accounted for by Italy, Russia, Germany, Belgium and Spain.

However, the research institute is worried that private nurseries may indiscriminately multiply the new variety of coffee. “This will dilute the genetic qualities of this variety," said Ramanan.

Anil Bhandari, a leading coffee planter and former president of the United Planters Association of South India, agrees. “This indiscriminate multiplication should be done away with since it will weaken the hybrid chain. Instead, the Coffee Board should take up distribution of the new variety and provide sufficient material to the growers," he said.

To give coffee production and marketing a new thrust, the government is more than doubling the budgetary allocation to the Coffee Board, the nodal marketing agency for coffee, from Rs300 crore in the 10th Plan to Rs750 crore in the 11th Plan.

Rasul Bailey in New Delhi contributed to this story.