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LONDON (AP) _ World coffee producers, faced with dropping prices and one of the worst crises in the industry's history, opened a four-day meeting Tuesday in London to try to find ways of staving off disaster for millions of farmers.

``What is at stake is the very survival of an industry,'' Colombia's Gabriel Silva Luja told the council of the 63-nation International Coffee Organization.

The international relief agency Oxfam reported last week that some 25 million coffee farmers around the world face ruin because of collapsing prices and a glut of low-quality beans.

World supplies exceed demand by 1.2 billion pounds per year, and the poorest countries' share of the market is shrinking, said Oxfam, starting a campaign for international action to destroy surplus stocks and raise producer prices.

The International Coffee Organization, an intergovernmental body of 45 exporting countries and 18 importing countries, is working to impose quality standards to drive the poorest beans out of the market. Part of the industry's problem is increased production of lower-grade robusta beans by such countries as Vietnam and Indonesia.

Silva, who has replaced the veteran Jorge Cardenas as head of the National Coffee Federation in Colombia, one of the world's largest coffee producers, said oversupply had led to the lowest prices for producers in history.

``Yet consumers drink coffee of low quality at higher prices,'' he said. The producers at the beginning of the process and the consumers at the end of it ``are not those who have benefitted from the new order,'' he added.

Coffee farmers are getting an average of 24 cents per pound for their beans, while consumers in industrialized countries are paying $3.60 a pound, said the Oxfam report.

The coffee organization's executive director, Nestor Osorio, said Tuesday the ``price situation continues to hit coffee growers hard in Africa, Asia and Latin America.''

He stressed the importance of international cooperation in finding a way to improve the income and living standards of growers, while ensuring fair supplies to the industry.

Osorio, who took the coffee organization's case to the World Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, a month ago, underlined the need to reach the decision-makers in importing countries, particularly the European Union, and the United States.

This ``conciousness-raising,'' he said, has made some impact. ``We have seen a growing interest,'' he added, pointing to the new Oxfam campaign.

Now is the time, he said, for members of the organization to make very specific efforts on a series of proposals on improvement of quality, promotion and diversification.

European Commission delegate Enzo Barattini said the European Union realized the coffee industry was in ``the most difficult and largest crisis we have ever seen.''

``We are well aware of the crisis, and will do everything we can in our institutions to act appropriately,'' he told the council.


On the Net:

Oxfam campaign, http://www.maketradefair.com

International Coffee Organization, http://www.ico.org