Is Robusta more productive than Arabica and how much more?
Michael: Technically, yes, Robusta is more productive per hectare than Arabica. You can get 3-5 tons of green beans per hectare. However, due to the low price of Robusta, the economics work out similar to that of Arabica. So even though it’s more productive, the increased labor costs, input costs, pest/disease, low price costs make it similar to the net revenue of Arabica.
Is Robusta more resistant than the Arabica trees?
Michael: It is to coffee rust, but not when it comes to drought. Plus there are other pests that plague Robusta (i.e. stem borer) that are not as common up in the highlands.
What is „more sustainable“ for the farmers – Arabica or Robusta?
Michael: „Sustainable“ is a huge, relative term. We can break it down to social, economic, environmental sustainability.
Technically, even selling the best Arabicas and Robustas are not enough income for a family to thrive. It’s usually enough to survive. Most farmers do not have enough land, therefore not enough capacity to produce enough coffee to have enough net sales to have enough income to really grow. Think about if you earn 7,000 USD per year for a family of 6, owning 1.2 hectares of land (80 % of coffee farmers have less than 2 hectares). About 2,000 USD goes to growing and harvesting. You’re left with 5,000 USD for your family. Now if you want healthcare? College? Bigger house? Etc. 500 USD a month is enough to survive, but not thrive.
Regardless of Arabica or Robusta, there is a dire need to diversify the crops. Coffee is only harvested one time (maybe two) times a year. That creates a one-time payment per year. This creates a cash-flow crisis for families. Diversifying allows for cash to be spread out over the year. Diversifying also increases income.
What do you think about the future? With regards to climate change will Robusta play even a bigger role for the farmers?
Michael: Genetics will play a role and protect Arabicas for the time being. Yes, I foresee more Robusta. People have zero clue about the potential of Robusta. It has been almost exclusively bred for quantity and cup quality be damned. Arabica, on the other hand, has been bred for quality. We have no clue what a well bred Robusta could taste like. It may be that the best Robustas could be better than the best Arabicas. We just do not know.