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Bean there, done that: arabica vs robusta coffee

ByRioney Perera

Nov 28, 2020

If you’re a coffee addict like me, then you might be well aware of the difference between arabica and robusta coffee; since the main consideration for consumers is taste, arabica is a lot smoother and robusta more bitter. However, we should also be considering which bean is better for the environment, as growing coffee beans can have a negative impact on the environment. 

So, let me give you a little back story about coffee. Coffee beans grow in areas within the ‘bean belt’ which include countries that are close to the equator such as Honduras, Ethiopia, and Columbia (to name a few!). There are plentiful varieties of coffee beans, but the two most produced beans are arabica and robusta. Generally, arabica coffee is thought to be of a higher grade and better quality, while robusta is grown to fit the commercial demand for coffee and is of lesser quality (though some may disagree).

When coffee is traditionally grown, like arabica is, it is under a shaded canopy, in a plush environment full of life and a diver range of trees – just imagine a sort of jungle paradise. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as a “bird paradise” because the diverse canopy of trees provides shelter for a range of bird species. As well as this, the canopy and caffeine reduces the dangers of topsoil erosion and the need for chemical fertilisers. So, the cultivation of arabica coffee, in some cases, can actually be quite fruitful for the environment. 

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same about robusta coffee; in order to fit the high demand, “sun cultivation” of the bean began. It costs about half the price of robusta to produce and is more resistant to diseases so there is an allure for farmers to grow it. In this process however, masses of trees are cut down to make way for large coffee plantations. So, with now limited trees and monoculture farming employed, there is no room for biodiversity, especially since chemical fertilisers have to be used. The deforestation linked to coffee is a large problem in the production as it is a contributor to climate change. The WWF found that 37 of the 50 countries with the highest deforestation rates are also coffee producers.

With the efficiency of “sun cultivated” coffee, farmers are being pushed to use these methods of farming. Climate change is also having an impact on the production of arabica coffee; arabic coffee tends to be grown in low levels of mountains as the hot days and cool nights maintain the climate needed for growing. However, with the rising global climate, the land in which arabica coffee can be grown is being pushed upwards, invading new habitats, and changing the biodiversity in those uncultivated areas. It is in fact predicted that by 2050, there will be a coffee shortage as a lot of the land previously used for coffee will be uncultivatable. 

As a consumer of coffee, we have a big impact on its production and thus impact on the environment. Now, I’m not saying we have to stop drinking coffee full stop…but if we do the small things like, cut down our daily intake to a single cup, exclusively buy arabica coffee and ensure it’s Fairtrade, we can reduce the negative impact to the environment. When you’re buying from a coffee shop, you can always ask your local café where they source their coffee and what type of coffee bean it is. At the end of the day, arabica coffee is tastier than robusta, so it being better for the environment is simply a plus that we can enjoy when drinking a nice cup of coffee. 

Image: Jessica Lewis via Unsplash.