Heiko Rischer doesn’t quite know how to describe the taste of lab coffee. This summer he tried one of the world’s first batches produced from cell cultures instead of coffee beans.
“It’s hard to describe, but for me, it was between a coffee and a black tea,” said Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at the VTT Technical Research Center in Finland, which developed the coffee. “It really depends on the degree of toasting, and that was a little lighter, so it had a little more tea feel.”
Rischer could not swallow the coffee, as this innovation in cellular agriculture is not yet approved for public consumption. Instead, he swirled the liquid in his mouth and spat it out. He predicts that mountain biking lab coffee could gain regulatory approval in Europe and the United States in about four years, paving the way for a marketed product that could have a much lower climate impact than conventional coffee.
The coffee industry is contributing to the climate crisis and is very vulnerable to its effects. Increased demand for coffee has been linked to deforestation in developing nations, damaging biodiversity and releasing carbon emissions. At the same time, coffee growers are struggling with the impacts of a more extreme climate, from frosts to droughts. It is estimated that half of the land that was made for growing coffee could be unproductive by 2050 due to the climate crisis.
In response to the challenges of the industry, companies and scientists are trying to develop and market brewed coffee without coffee beans.
MTB coffee is grown by floating cell cultures in nutrient-filled bioreactors. The process requires no pesticides and has a much lower water footprint, Rischer said, and because coffee can be produced in local markets, it reduces transportation emissions. The company is working on an analysis of the life cycle process. “Once we have these figures, we will be able to show that the environmental impact will be much lower than we have with conventional cultivation,” Rischer said.
American startups also work in coffee without beans. In September, Seattle-based Atomo Coffee launched what it called the world’s first “molecular coffee” in a one-day pop-up online, charging $ 5.99 a can.
The start-up, which has raised $ 11.5 million, makes its coffee by converting plant waste compounds into the same compounds that green coffee contains. Ingredients, including dates seed extracts, chicory root, grape skin, and caffeine, are roasted, ground, and processed. This method translates into 93% less carbon emissions and 94% less water than conventional coffee production, as well as no deforestation, according to Atomo.
“The industry has known about the harmful effects of the cafeteria for a long time, whether we’re talking about deforestation or significant water use,” said Jarret Stopforth, co-founder of Atomo. “[Before starting Atomo] I thought to myself, “There has to be a better way to do this.”
Atomo’s facilities can produce about 1,000 servings of coffee a day. The goal is to increase that amount to 10,000 servings a day over the next 12 months, Stopforth said, and in two years move to a facility that can produce 30 million servings of coffee a year. Stopforth says Atomo will begin the initial phase of new factory construction in the next three months.
Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said alternative coffee companies like Atomo not only have the potential to help deal with the climate crisis, but to benefit the industry in general.
Take Arabian beans, Charlebois said. “You need specific climate patterns and it’s much better if you have more control in a lab environment than just trying to trust Mother Nature.” Technology can help stabilize production and make it more predictable, he said.
But it’s not clear how many people would be willing to give up conventional coffee for one of their grainless counterparts. A 2019 survey by Dalhousie University found that 72% of Canadians say they would not drink lab coffee.
Maricel Saenz, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Compound Foods, said she worked to “reinvent” coffee and show people why it’s important to do so. Compound Foods, which has raised $ 4.5 million in seed funding, says it is recreating cafeteria production in the lab. The startup uses microbes and fermentation technology to cultivate various flavors and aromas, Saenz said.
Preliminary results from the carbon life cycle analysis indicate that the company’s coffee produces one-tenth of greenhouse gas emissions and water use from traditional coffee, Saenz said. He plans to introduce his product in late 2022 and expects prices to be similar to specialty coffees. “As we improve our processes, we aim to lower our prices,” he said.
As the population grows and pressure on natural resources increases, Saenz said, “we need to produce food in more efficient ways, using many of the biotechnology and fermentation tools we now have at our disposal.”
But Daniele Giovannucci, chairman and co-founder of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, a consortium focused on agricultural sustainability, is concerned that increasing laboratory coffee could affect the livelihoods of millions of workers in the traditional coffee industry, especially in countries such as Ethiopia where coffee is central to the economy. “What will happen to all these people?” Giovannucci asked. “What will they do, because it’s a key cash crop?”
There is a risk, he said, that laboratory coffee could create significant socio-economic problems that could lead to even greater effects of climate change. “It’s not clear if, in the end, its net effect can worsen global sustainability, along with many millions of lives.”
Saenz, who is from Costa Rica, a coffee exporting country, said, “I know a lot of coffee growers, so it’s something that definitely worries me.” But, he added, “the number one threat to coffee growers today is climate change,” whether it’s the heat that alters ripening times or the unexpected frosts Brazil experienced in the summer. , which severely damaged crops.
Saenz said his company will partner with nonprofits to help small coffee growers move toward more sustainable farming practices, including training and crop insurance.
While lab coffee proves a real promise, Charlebois said, the policy should not be underestimated, especially because many farmers depend on conventional methods of crop production and many of them live in developing economies. “Scalability is not an issue for lab coffee,” he said, “but regulation and general acceptance of the technology will be major challenges.”
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