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316. CRS and the great debate

2012-11-07 Comments Off on 316. CRS and the great debate

Yesterday I referred here to some recent salvoes in the escalating debate over the appropriate role for Robusta coffees in the U.S. specialty market.  Today, some reflections on our modest role in support of the fine Robusta project.

But first, it is important to acknowledge that the great Robusta debate is not new — fine Robusta has been a topic of discussion in the specialty coffee industry since I started working in coffee back in 2004, and probably since long before that.  The recent exchange in the pages of Coffee Talk magazine is only the latest chapter in the debate; the perspectives that have framed the current discussion have been present at least since this 2005 article in Fresh Cup magazine.


The current debate over specialty Robusta has ascribed some unsavory motives to actors involved in the specialty Robusta effort.  Since we have been implicated in that debate, it may be worth clarifying the origins and nature of our modest involvement in fine Robusta to date.

  • What about the other 50 million?
    Last December, before Coffee Talk’s publishers emerged as leading public opponents of the fine Robusta protocols and the R-grader program, they published an article by Alex Katona-Carroll of the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI). The title of article asked, “What about the other 50 million?” — a reference to to the estimated volume of the annual trade in Robusta coffee; its contents made the case for the CQI’s leadership of a program that applied to Robusta coffee through the R program that same approach that made the Q program so instrumental in transforming the Arabica trade.  In that article, CRS was cited as one the organizations (along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, the Neumann Foundation and others) that is engaging in promotion of the fine Robusta ideal.  At the time the story was published, we were just getting started in the field planning of a project with 1,600 family farmers in Ecuador’s northern Amazon region.
  • CRS Let’s Talk Robusta.
    The most visible demonstration of our support for quality-differentiated Robusta came last month in Colombia, when CRS helped stage “Let’s Talk Robusta,” an event-within-an-event held during Sustainable Harvest’s Let’s Talk Coffee gathering.  Let’s Talk Robusta was a three-part program that started, appropriately, with an introduction to fine Robusta for an audience not well acquainted with the concept, and culminated in a fine Robusta cupping led by the great Sunalini Menon, R-grader Andrew Hetzel and the Italian coffee trader Vinko Sandalj.  The event may have also contributed to the great debate — Twitter coverage of the event by Sprudge invited spirited exchanges over the future of Robusta in specialty.
  • Our motivation.
    Coffee Talk suggests that the motivations behind the push toward specialty Robusta are crass — specialized value chain actors seeking funding for projects that will help them generate business but won’t help farmers improve their livelihoods and won’t do any favors for the specialty industry.  For CRS, the motivation and sequence were perhaps different.  We did not seek funding to join CQI’s R project, which hadn’t even been created at the time we developed our project.  We committed first to supporting 1,600 family farmers interested in reactivating a sagging coffee economic in the northern Amazon region.  Only later, as we considered the market opportunities available to Robusta farmers in the region and learned of the R program developed in Uganda, did we identify and invest in exploring options for quality-differentiated Robusta that include the emerging market for R-graded coffees.
  • Differentiation to add value in tight markets, mitigate risk in slack ones.
    As we analyzed the situation in the northern Amazon together with local partners, we heard a familiar story wherever we went.  Family farmers in this region used to live off what they made from growing and selling Robusta, and live well.  Many of the families in the area migrated from the traditional coffee regions of Loja and Zamora to the Amazon during the oil boom in the 1960s and 1970s to escape drought.  They brought their families to new lands but brought their old vocation with them: coffee farming.  With the coffee crisis in 2001, everything changed.  It cost a grower more to pay a worker to pick a sack of coffee than he could get for that coffee at market.  Coffee neglected, abandoned or cleared to make way for cacao.  Now farmers in the region want to reintroduce coffee to their farms.  CRS is inclined to support them, but not under the conditions that historically prevailed in the region, which we don’t consider particularly sustainable for a family farmer: coffee of uncertain genetic provenance poorly managed and sold in the town plaza at the market rate on the basis of weight.  Under this scenario, coffee will thrive in the northern Amazon only as long as prices stay high.  When the price (inevitably) falls again, farmers will make the rational decision to abandon it again.  In a country with a minimum wage for agricultural labor of $15/day, prices won’t have to fall too far to make the commodity trade in Robusta unprofitable again for family farmers.  In quality-based differentiation, CRS sees an approach that can help farmers generate added value when markets are tight and protect themselves against ruin when markets are slack.  The market for fine Robusta is small.  But there is stubborn demand for Robusta for traditional European espresso blends, and the R program opens new frontiers of possibility.  It may be a long shot, but it may also be the best shot farmers in Ecuador’s northern Amazon region have of reviving and sustaining the coffee culture of their ancestors.

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