Lab-grown coffee cuts out the beans and deforestation
As the world's population continues to grow, so does the strain we place on the environment in our efforts to feed all those hungry mouths, and part of the solution may lie in the lab. We've seen how lab-grown meats like rib-eye steaks, burgers or chicken tenders could help address the massive environmental costs associated with livestock production, and we're now seeing some interesting possibilities emerge around one of the world's most popular drinks – coffee.
Almost 10 billion kg (22 billion lb) of coffee is produced globally each year, and demand is only expected to increase in the coming decades. And keeping up with that demand will involve creating more space to raise coffee plants, which involves deforesting vast areas so they can thrive in the direct sunlight. Making matters worse, studies have shown coffee to be highly susceptible to climate change, with much of the land suitable for its production expected to be significantly reduced in a warmer world. Rising temperatures also make disease and pests more common.
So there are serious sustainability issues facing the global coffee industry, but an alternative means of production may be in the works. The technology mirrors other forms of "cellular agriculture," where products are created using cell cultures rather than actual animals or plants, and therefore involve just a fraction of the energy, water and carbon emissions.
"The idea is to use biotechnology rather than conventional farming for the production of food and therefore provide alternative routes which are less dependent on unsustainable practices," Dr Heiko Rischer, Head of Plant Biotechnology at Finland's VTT research institute, explains to New Atlas. "For example, these solutions have a lower water footprint and less transport is needed due to local production. There isn’t any seasonal dependency or the need for pesticides either."
Rischer has been heading up a research project at VTT aimed at producing lab-grown coffee, using cells harvested from real plants. Last week, these efforts began to bear fruit, with the team producing its very first cup, which Rischer says smelled and tasted similar to ordinary coffee.
"The process uses real coffee plant cells," he tells us. "Initially a cell culture is started from a plant part eg. a leaf. The formed cells are propagated and multiplied on a specific nutrient medium. Ultimately, the cells are transferred to a bioreactor from which the biomass is then harvested. The cells are dried and roasted and then coffee can be brewed."
As is the case with lab-grown meats, both research groups and ambitious companies are working towards more sustainable coffee production in the lab. Compound Foods is a US startup that recently announced US$4.5 million in seed funding to develop coffee without beans by extracting molecules through "synthetic biology," according to TechCrunch.
Atomo is another US-based startup with aspirations in the space. It is a little further along in its journey, having raised $11.6 million across two seed rounds in the past couple of years, and claims to have reverse-engineered the coffee bean to produce a molecular blend that is less bitter than conventional coffee. This process, it says, uses 94 percent less water and generates 93 percent less carbon emissions that conventional coffee production.
So how long until these sustainable cups of joe find their way into the hands of coffee lovers around the world? Lab-grown coffee would first need to undergo regulatory approval by the relevant authorities in different markets, although Atomo has previously outlined its plans to launch in 2021, so it may not be that far away. Rischer, meanwhile, is working to a much more conservative time frame.
"We aim to team up with industrial partners in order to develop a real product," he says. "In the most optimistic scenario a commercial product could be ready in four years."
The video below provides an overview of VTT's technology.