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The Extraction is Fine with Robusta, But Not Robusta Fraud

coffee and health

Coffee: Healthy, or not? The ping-ponging coverage of this topic, week after week, is maddening. Yet with the backdrop of the California Prop 65 coffee kerfuffle, the Washington Post last weekend set off a week’s worth of web-reverberations by itself borrowing an article from Knowable Magazine originally published back in December that looked at an “umbrella” study in the Annual Review of Nutrition that weighed evidence from 127 different studies on the health effects of coffee. Conclusion: It’s healthy, except if you’re pregnant.

Coffee-shop denizens probably benefit from two main mechanisms. First, coffee beans contain phytochemicals (some of which are also found in fruits, vegetables, chocolate and tea) that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. All of the diseases linked to protective effects from coffee start with low-level inflammation in the body, and anti-inflammatory dietary chemicals circulating in the body could calm it down.

Second, caffeine and other phytochemicals have specific effects on enzymes that regulate liver function, insulin and glucose metabolism, and DNA repair. All could act favorably to fend off Parkinson’s, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

Other cheery perspectives came from Uganda this week by way of Business Daily in its interview with Vincent Buyi, the general manager of Bugisu Co-operative Union (BCUL), based in eastern Uganda. For while its eastern neighbor Kenya, despite achievements in coffee quality, has reportedly seen production and farmer income dwindle steeply from its heyday in the 1980s, Uganda’s output has generally surged to become second largest East African producer, after Ethiopia:

What is Uganda doing right that Kenya can emulate? Vincent Buyi, general manager of the co-operative, said success of the coffee industry has been as result of government support in good farming practices and availability of fertile land.

Of course the sector is by no means without its social and environmental challenges. Better and more reliable compensation could in theory result in investments that work to correct such issues, though, so to that end, Ugandan weekly newspaper The Observer reported this week that price risk management training and education is being carried out by the Agribusiness Development Center (ADC), with promising responses so far:

Anja de Fijter, the head of ADC said there is an increase in coffee exports. She said currently Uganda exports almost five million coffee bags. “There is no doubt people continue to embrace coffee growing; the sector has a bright future,” de Fijter said. According to some of the trainees, the two day training couldn’t have come at a better time.

“I now know about contracts, all the terms involved in exporting. I don’t think buyers will be able to manipulate me again,” Ronald Odia, a farmer from Zombo said. For Matovu Richard a farmer from Mbale, the training helped him to equip him with knowledge to make better decisions.

It’s worth noting that the Business Daily piece did also briefly mention that Uganda’s trajectory has been buoyed in part by the cultivation of high-yielding robusta. For its lower cost, and despite its generally lower quality, shifty players in the roasting industry have been known to commit “coffee fraud,” sneaking cheap robusta into a mix without stating as such, sometimes even in blends claiming to be 100-percent arabica. Apparently, they’ve figured once it’s blended, roasted, and ground, who’s gonna know? Science! that’s who. The extreme nerds at Science Trends have figured out a way to quantify the robusta in roasted blends:

In short, mid-infrared spectroscopy (ATR-FTIR), multivariate calibration (PLS) and variable selection were combined for developing a simple, rapid and non-destructive method for determining Robusta content in coffee blends. Specific models were developed for ground coffee samples obtained at three different roasting levels. Nevertheless, the most useful and robust model was obtained with samples including a lot of variability, such as different origins and roasting levels.

Hopefully that technique will also work with green tea, because you never know what form the next fad will take. Rocket News this week revealed that a Kyoto, Japan-based beverage maker is offering a simple solution for people that have a really hard time trying to choose between coffee and tea. It’s both!

Nagi Kyoto takes green tea leaves from Kyoto’s Uji, one of Japan’s most respected tea-growing communities, and grinds them together with internationally-sourced coffee beans roasted in Kyoto’s Nishijin district. When brewed, the mixture combines the qualities of coffee and tea for a uniquely satisfying blend.

Mmmm… together at last, and probably less bitter. Yet while Costa Rica has banned robusta cultivation and trade groups in Colombia and elsewhere also frown upon its cultivation, Vietnamese newspaper VN Express pointed out this week that more and more Latin American farmers are actually coming around to the cash crop:

“It has good productivity and a good price,” said Evelio Matamoros, a farmer in Nicaragua who first planted robusta in 2010. Robusta “has better yields and it doesn’t need shade. That matters.”

Coffee at San Marcos de Tarrazú, Costa Rica. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Given lower freight costs to the US, robusta from Central and South America could someday pose a competitive threat to Big Robusta Vietnam. Meanwhile, robusta-free Costa Rica is busier combatting a threat to all coffee industries, everywhere: climate change. Committed to achieving nationwide carbon neutrality by 2021, Costa Rica’s coffee production accounts for about nine percent of its greenhouse gas emissions. The Christian Science Monitor checked in with Costa Rican coffee farming coop Coopedota, which in 2011 reportedly became the world’s first certified carbon-neutral coffee coop:

Coopedota works with farmers to ensure their planting and growing processes are in line with reducing emissions, encouraging them to plant more trees and use the shade-cover to protect coffee plants. The cost of transporting the beans to and from the cooperative is offset with carbon credits.

“Our goal is to train the farmers. Many have generations of experience growing coffee and because of that they rely on techniques from 60 years ago,” Cordero says. But with the changing climate, which has reduced coffee yields nationwide by 39 percent since 2000, farmers are eager to learn new techniques.

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