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. The demand for coffee is expected to rise as more people live in the country.
That might not seem like a problem, but studies show that coffee is highly susceptible to climate change. Due to the increased demand, farmers must provide more space to grow their coffee plants. This results in deforestation to allow the plants to thrive in direct sunshine.
However, the expectation is that coffee production land will become less suitable as the world warms. Higher temperatures are also likely to increase the likelihood of pests and disease.
The coffee industry faces sustainability challenges like these and needs a backup plan. There is one, and it’s a good thing.
What is Coffee from a Lab?
The popularity of lab-grown meats has increased in recent years. It is possible to get a ribeye steak or burger directly from a laboratory, without the large environmental impact associated with raising poultry and livestock.
The coffee industry has begun to explore this trend and is looking for alternative methods of producing coffee to keep up with the rising 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.
A lab method of growing coffee is more efficient than traditional methods of coffee cultivation. It uses less energy, water, carbon, 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, 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. His team reached a major milestone recently when they produced their first cup 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. Their process generates 94% less carbon emissions and uses 94% less water, compared to traditional coffee production.
This is just the beginning of this type of technology in a booming market. But it still needs to go through the regulatory approval, which will take many 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?
Rischer said that his lab grown coffee tastes and smells like regular coffee. 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.