Brazil faces short robusta harvest in 2017 too, expert warns


Brazil could in 2017 suffer its third successive sub-par robusta crop, thanks to a hangover from drought, leading commentator Carlos Brando said, as the country mulls enabling imports of the variety for the first time.

The unexpectedly strong recovery in Brazil's arabica coffee output after drought two years ago should not lull investors into believing that robusta production can make the same rapid revival too, said Mr Brando, a director at Brazil-based P&A Marketing, and an advisor to the likes of the World Bank.

"After 2014, arabica production recovered much faster than anyone expected, but it is not the same situation with robusta," Mr Brando told, citing agronomic differences which mean robusta trees have been worse affected by a lack of water thanks to an inability to reach deep moisture sources.

Robusta trees are grown from clonal stock, which tends to "produce several superficial roots", which remain closer to the surface, contrasting with the single, deep root developed by seed-grown plants.

This tendency for shallow rooting has only been enhanced by the greater use of irrigation in regions, such as Espirito Santo, which produce robusta, known in Brazil as conilon.

'Lazy trees'

"Irrigation makes the trees lazy – they do not have to send roots far down into the soil," Mr Brando said.

Brazilian robusta and (arabica) coffee output

2016-17: 8.35m bags, (41.29m bags)

2015-16: 11.19m bags, (32.05m bags)

2014-15: 13.04m bags, (32.31m bags)

2013-14: 10.87m bags, (38.29m bags)

2012-13: 12.48m bags, (38.34m bags)

Source: Conab, which updates its estimates on December 22
And that has made trees particularly vulnerable to irrigation bans introduced last year by many drought-affected areas.

"When farmers could not irrigate any longer, trees' roots were not deep enough" to tap remaining, deep soil moisture, Mr Brando said.

"A lot of trees died, and while they may have been replanted, they will not produce until 2018."

Soluble coffee woes

The comments come as Brazil's government is considering easing the way for the country - the second-ranked robusta coffee producer, and typically a major exporter - to import the variety for the first time.

While robusta imports have never been officially banned, the degree of red tape needed to gain authority for buy-ins has made them unworkable.

However, the shortage of supplies, after drought affected harvests in both 2015 and 2016, has led to pressure from roasters, and in particular the Brazilian soluble coffee association, Abics, for consent to import robusta beans.

Vietnam and Indonesia, the first- and third-ranked robusta growing countries respectively, have been named as likely origins for imports.

Lesson from cocoa?

While many roasters can swap robusta beans for arabica ones, that it not an option for many soluble coffee groups, which have long-term commitments for third party brands, Mr Brando said.

"It is hard for them to make the change," he said, estimating soluble industry demand for robusta at 3.6m bags a year, of which some 80% are exported.

However, he flagged too the "understandable" objections among producers to imports, after a similar move in cocoa, following an outbreak of witches' broom disease in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was blamed for hampering a recovery in Brazil's own industry after the outbreak passed.

"Cocoa was being imported from countries which were subsidising their production, and with which Brazil's own growers could never compete," Mr Brando said.


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