Robusta coffee at risk – and a coffee myth

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Today we are talking about robusta coffee, its myth and how to debunk them.

When talking about robusta coffee we may think we know everything. In fact, there’s a kind of coffee myth around it. Most of us, including myself, have always believed that robusta coffee was invincible to any disease, unlike arabica coffee.

I was one of the many that firmly believed that growing robusta coffee was a safe thing to do for a farmer, preventing and limiting the risk from natural disasters.

So, today, I want to talk a bit more about the myth behind robusta coffee and why coffee myths are hard to debunk. Just let me say a few words about them.

robusta coffee mythsCoffee Myths

Any coffee myths (and like any myths) exist because we take something we believe or scientific research for granted and we keep living with that thinking it’s the only way, solution or whatever. Let me give you an example.

It has been said that the ideal pressure when tamping your coffee inside the portafilter had to be around 20g. With that amount of pressure, you were assured to make enough resistance and so consistently get an even extraction ensuring repeatability at every single shot.

Then, a new study changed this way but it took a while to reach out to all creating confusion and doubts in the minds of baristas.

So, what happened was that many people tended to believe in the previous study without updating as they strongly believed it was the only way to achieve the result.

And that’s exactly what happened to me with the robusta coffee myth I’m going to introduce.

The robusta coffee myth

It was known since ever (who didn’t know that) that growing robusta coffee was less risky compared to Arabica coffee for a number of reasons:

  • it’s disease-resistant, especially rust-resistant;
  • it’s less expensive to grow as it doesn’t need to be cultivated under the shadows of the trees;
  • it yields much more than arabica coffee;
  • it’s resistant to climatic conditions such as heavy rain, strong wind, high temperature and so on. Especially concerning the latter, the optimal condition to grow robusta coffee is within 22-30 degrees Celsius.

Now, whether you like it or not, all these reasons have to be reconsidered as claimed by “Not so robust: Robusta coffee production is highly sensitive to temperature”, a new study that was published on March 28.

The study has taken into account what happens when robusta coffee is exposed to high temperature. Essentially, it turned out that robusta coffee is more sensitive to high temperature than what we have always believed and a great number of coffee plants are now at risk of extinction.

The study has monitored for 10 years the yield of 798 farms on the Southeast Asiatic area demonstrating that the ideal temperature to grow coffee is under 20.5°C within an optimal range of 16.2-24.2 degrees Celsius. The study claims that “In the middle of robusta’s currently assumed optimal range (mean annual temperatures over 25.1°C), coffee yields are 50% lower compared to the optimal mean of ≤20.5°C found here. During the growing season, every 1°C increase in mean minimum/maximum temperatures above 16.2/24.1°C corresponded to yield declines of ~14% or 350–460 kg/ha (95% credible interval). Our results suggest that robusta coffee is far more sensitive to temperature than previously thought.”

See related here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.15097

What I’ve learned from this is that keep evolving is vital. The coffee industry is quickly evolving and we need to keep ourselves updated as new studies are changing our thinking. It’s an ongoing learning process. What we know now may not be enough very soon.

This recent study should be taken as a wake-up bell as the current measures are inadequate. Also, robusta coffee plants are known to be resistant concerning the CLR (coffee leaf rust) but this doesn’t mean they are resistant to all of the pests and fungal pathogens. In fact, robusta coffee plant is affected by the CWD (coffee wild disease) which commonly infect the tree both internally and externally by disrupting the vascular system, losing moisture on leaves and, at the last stage, bringing to death the whole plant.

The future of arabica and robusta coffee

60% of all the coffee species (which are 124 in total) are at risk of extinction (wild coffee included). The global coffee production is in the hands of smallholder farmers and needs our help to keep their income. We all should care much more about our actions, especially concerning carbon emission, deforestation and the value we ascribe to the coffee industry.

In the next 30 years, half of the land intended for the production of coffee will no longer available due especially for the increase in temperature. That’s the main thing that threatens the production of coffee but also farming, burning fossil and deforesting contribute to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The direct consequence is the increase of the weather patterns and its unpredictability, the increase of storms, droughts and flood.

When this occurs, it becomes difficult for the farmer to grow coffee, ripening the cherries and even predict when will be the next harvest/planting.

Farmers have adopted new measures to deal with the global climate change such as creating shade (even with robusta coffee plant) on their plantations, crossbreeding and even intercropping.

But all these measures are just a way to survive and keep producing coffee. Changing the course of events in the future has to be done by us. If we don’t make a huge impact on the way we live, we won’t invert the process.

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