- Brazil and Vietnam currently produce 80% of the world’s robusta
- Mass commercial coffee production has historically been associated with environmentally irresponsible agricultural practices
- Many coffee companies are framing robusta as being the “solution” to climate change – but how fair is that?
AS WE enter the “era of global boiling”, as António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, calls it, conversations about the future of coffee production persist across the board.
With the amount of land available to grow high-quality arabica estimated to halve by 2050, robusta has long been posited as a long-term solution to prop up supply. It can withstand higher temperatures and resist pests and diseases that are intensified by the effects of climate change.
At the same time, businesses in major coffee-consuming markets are still grappling with increasing costs, from inflationary pressure to high energy prices. And while arabica prices have moderated from peak levels in the last two years, they still remain high. As such, many roasters are turning to robusta.
“Large companies are adding commercial robusta to their blends to bring down their prices, and this is contributing to increased commercial robusta production,” says Cleia Junquera, international coffee consultant and licensed Q grader and Q robusta grader (also known as an R grader).
This transition to robusta is increasingly being framed as a strategy to combat climate change, giving the shift a sense of noble environmental protection. Some specialty coffee companies who once proudly dismissed robusta as an inferior species are now preaching the exact opposite.
In reality, the shift to commercial robusta is an adaptive strategy – driven more by the need to manage rising costs and adjust to the impacts of climate change, rather than actively mitigating for a more environmentally-friendly industry.
However, as Cleia touches on, the conversation is more nuanced than that – and it’s important to draw a distinction between commercial robusta and fine robusta.
In some instances, brands have turned to commercial-grade robusta to protect their profit margins while conveniently promoting the transition as an act of environmental stewardship. In others, companies are investing in fine robusta – an entirely different segment that prioritises quality and sustainability.
There is also a tendency among some brands to leverage the growing reputation of fine robusta as a way to vindicate the use of commercial-grade robusta. Without differentiating between the two, consumers could be led into thinking the positive attributes of fine robusta also apply to the commercial-grade lots as well.
Preaching robusta as a blanket solution is reductive
The allure of lower production costs and a climate-resistant supply has sparked something of a robusta gold rush. In this context, not distinguishing between the two is problematic. Historically, commercial robusta has been associated with environmentally problematic agricultural practices, while the other can be grown and managed in alignment with the coffee industry’s sustainability goals.
“To me, it all comes down to the cost of production,” says Christophe Montagnon, CEO of RD2 Vision. “Climate change or not, robusta is robust and cost-effective. If you ask anyone in the coffee industry if it’s a good idea to lower the cost of production – they will say yes. So increasing robusta production is the natural next step, in that sense.”
Christophe highlights that the environmental impact of coffee is not determined by its species, but rather by the intensive farming practices employed for mass production (that are commonly associated with commercial robusta). These practices generally impact the environment, reduce coffee quality, and drive down prices.
In this light, the rush to buy commercial robusta could be viewed as a race to the bottom in terms of quality and producer earnings.
Having said this, robusta’s longstanding association with being cheap and mainstream has hindered investment, prohibiting differentiation within the species and restricting its sustainable development.
“With the exception of Uganda, in robusta, we only have one major farming system with Brazil and Vietnam dominating production,” Christophe says.
In contrast, arabica benefits from greater investment, a higher level of differentiation, and more awareness about sustainable farming techniques.
By identifying specific attributes and practices that set apart sustainable robusta production, the industry can work towards the industry can help to implement truly sustainable coffee production practices while also increasing long-term commercial viability for coffee producers.
For example, by understanding the diverse ecosystems where robusta is grown, differentiation allows for tailored approaches that minimise deforestation and habitat loss.
At the same time, differentiation will help to redefine robusta quality. This could promote the production of higher-quality, sustainable coffee that fetches higher prices, which would ultimately benefit farmers.
Sustainable opportunities for robusta
So, is robusta a solution to climate change – or merely a symptom of it?
Essentially, robusta production happens on a spectrum of environmental responsibility. This means that labelling it as good or bad is reductive, as is presenting it as a blanket solution to climate change.
Christophe sees potential to address the lack of diversity in large-scale robusta production systems. Currently, West Africa contributes just 6% of the global robusta supply – a stark contrast to the 51% it contributed consistently throughout the 1960s and 70s.
“In terms of farming systems, West African countries represent an equivalent opportunity to growing arabica coffee under shade in Central America,” he explains.
Putting those countries back on the map could boost sustainable robusta production systems and help to differentiate in terms of quality, which are not currently as prominent in Brazil and Vietnam.
Looking at arabica’s historical development and advanced level of diversification, it is easy to see that there are significant, short-term improvements to be made for robusta.
“Raw material for development is in the native habitat of robusta, in West and Central Africa,” says Christophe. “For arabica, it’s Ethiopia. The area for robusta is massive in comparison, stretching from Guinea-Conakry to Uganda.
“Making use of genetic resources for robusta that have been underused so far is a huge opportunity – I feel it’s time to bring robusta home.”
While there is still much to explore in terms of sustainable robusta production, some countries such as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are leading by example with large-scale production of high-quality, shade-grown robusta.
Another example would be India, the fifth-largest robusta producer after Uganda. It uses a full agroforestry system and enforces strict biodiversity protection regulations. Lavazza Group’s Carte Noire, a premium commercial brand, recently launched a biodiversity-friendly range in France featuring Indian robusta.
Ultimately, it’s clear that the overriding reason that more stakeholders in the coffee industry are switching to robusta has been to adapt to climate change and other market factors. Climate mitigation is another conversation altogether.
That said, with the right investment and intentions, robusta development could prove to be a genuinely sustainable way forward for the coffee industry.
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