The Mexican government and the multinational food conglomerate Nestlè have partnered to increase the production of robusta coffee in nine of Mexico’s states. The majority of coffee grown in Mexico is arabica. Robusta is grown by about 19,000 families on 34,000 hectares of land in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz. Current estimates are that Mexico produces 150,000 to 240,000 60-kg bags of robusta annually, oughly 5% of total coffee production in the country.
The plan is to increase robusta production to 500,000 bags by 2012, with 2000 hectares being planted with new robusta trees this year*. Nestlè is supplying the high-yield stock, and ultimately the output will go to supply their Nescafé soluble coffee plant in Toluca, outside of Mexico City. Nestlè plans to increase the capacity of this plant by 40%, which will make it the largest instant coffee production facility in the world. Currently, 450,000 bags of coffee are imported into Mexico to fuel the instant coffee beast.
Many of Mexico’s coffee farmers are not happy about this plan, concurring with a 2006 FAO recommendation that robusta production in the country not be increased due to concerns about oversupply and farmer income. Let me add my environmental concerns to the mix.
Unlike arabica coffee, which can (and is, in much of Mexico) grown as an agroforestry crop under mixed shade, robusta is grown in the sun and will require the clearing of valuable lowland forests, no doubt substantial amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, and cause collateral environmental damage.
Deforestation is already a problem in Mexico; between 1990 and 2005, the country lost nearly 7.5% of its forests and woodlands. The problem is especially severe in the state of Veracruz with a loss of 22% of forested lands between 1993-2000.
Ironically, this will also impact arabica production in the highlands. At least one study  has shown that deforestation of tropical lowland areas reduces the moisture of the air flowing up adjacent mountains. This decreases montane humidity and increases the elevation of the cloud deck, altering the highland forested areas where arabica coffee is grown (not to mention impacting all the other biodiversity associated with these habitat changes). Simulations indicate that “…inland cloud forests like those of southern Mexico may be profoundly influenced by regional deforestation.”
Perhaps Mexico needs to rethink this strategy. The biggest beneficiary will be Nestlè’s profits. Although some farmers may see short-term gains, in the long run deforestation contributes to climate change, food insecurity, and loss of biodiversity. That’s a big price to pay for more cheap unsustainable instant coffee.
*It will require 9400 to 79,000 ha to produce a half million bags, with the low figure representing the production of some of Nestle’s highest yielding varieties, based on yields in the Phillipines.
 Lawton, R. O., U. S. Nair, R. A. Pielke, Sr., and R. M. Welch. 2001. Climatic impact of tropical lowland deforestation on nearby montane cloud forests. Science 294:584-587.
Instant coffee photo by mat300 under a Creative Commons License.