There are almost eight billion people on this planet, and the majority of them really love to drink coffee. Almost 22 billion pounds of coffee are produced globally every year. And as the population grows, demand is expected to increase.
That might not seem like a problem, but studies show that coffee is highly susceptible to climate change. The increased demand means that farmers need to create more space to raise their coffee plants. This leads to deforestation so the plants can thrive in direct sunlight.
The expectation is, though, that suitable land for coffee production will be significantly reduced as the world gets warmer. Rising temperatures also tend to make disease and pests a lot more common.
With the coffee industry facing sustainability issues like these, there needs to be a backup plan. And thank goodness there is one.
Coffee From A Lab?
In recent years, lab-grown meats have become a popular alternative to meats that come from livestock or poultry. You can get a ribeye steak, burger, or chicken tender that comes directly from a lab, which skips the massive environmental costs that come with livestock and poultry production.
Now, the coffee industry is diving into this trend and looking for an alternative means of production to accommodate the growing population.
There is new tech being used in the coffee industry that is similar to other forms of “cellular agriculture,” which is when products are created in a lab using cell structures instead of coming from plants or animals.
The benefit of growing coffee in a lab is that it involves just a small percentage of energy, water, and carbon emissions compared to traditional coffee growing methods.
“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, explained to New Atlas.
Dr. Rischer pointed out that these lab-based solutions have a “lower water footprint and less transport is needed due to local production.” As a result, “there isn’t any seasonal dependency or the need for pesticides either.”
The First Cup Of Lab Grown Coffee Is Here
Dr. Rischer has been leading a research project at VTT, with the goal of producing lab-grown coffee from cells harvested from real coffee plants. Recently, he and his team hit a major milestone when they produced their very first cup of lab-grown coffee.
“The process uses real coffee plant cells,” he explained. “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.”
Companies Are Investing In Coffee Without Beans
As Dr. Rischer has started to find success in his research project, some companies have been investing millions into more sustainable coffee production through the use of a lab. Compound Foods has announced $4.5 million is going into developing coffee without beans through the use of “synthetic biology.”
Another startup called Atomo has raised $11.6 million so far during its first two investing rounds with the goal of producing a less-bitter molecular blend of coffee. They say their process uses 94% less water and generates 93% less carbon emissions compared to conventional coffee production.
This is just the beginning for this kind of technology in a blossoming market, but it still needs to go through the regulatory approval process, which will take years.
“We aim to team up with industrial partners in order to develop a real product,” Dr. Rischer says. “In the most optimistic scenario a commercial product could be ready in four years.”
What Does Lab Grown Coffee Taste Like?
According to Rischer, his lab grown coffee tastes and smells similar to a regular cup of joe. However, in his official statement through VTT, the Finnish researcher did admit that they still need time to perfect his lab growing method because “coffee making is an art.”
“In terms of smell and taste, our trained sensory panel and analytical examination found the profile of the brew to bear similarity to ordinary coffee,” Rischer wrote. “However, coffee making is an art and involves iterative optimization under the supervision of specialists with dedicated equipment. Our work marks the basis for such work.”
The researcher shared that the experience of drinking the very first cup of lab grown coffee was “exciting.” He explained that the best part was proving that this coffee could be a reality. And he also noted that his personal favorite was “the dark roast.”
Maybe by 2025, we’ll be able to try a cup so we can find out if the doctor’s claims are true.