Finnish scientists have just produced their first cup of coffee from lab-grown cells. According to them, this is a much more energy-efficient process that makes it possible to produce coffee anywhere in the world and avoids the deforestation caused by the cultivation of coffee trees.
After lab-grown beef, chicken, and fish, Finnish scientists want to do the same for coffee. According to Sustainable Coffee, no less than 9.5 million tons of coffee are produced worldwide each year, and demand could triple by 2050. If productivity is not improved, the area under cultivation will have to double, which means a risk of deforestation in the affected areas. In addition, climate change poses a direct threat to coffee trees. According to a 2014 study, global warming could reduce the amount of land available for coffee cultivation by 50%. Finally, coffee cultivation is far from being environmentally friendly: the carbon footprint of a single cup of espresso is 280 grams of CO2.
Growing coffee in Finland 365 days a year is possible.
Hence the idea of the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), which aims to grow coffee in a laboratory using cells harvested from real plants. “The idea is to use biotechnology instead of conventional agriculture to produce food,” Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at VTT, told the New Atlas website. These solutions also require less water, and since coffee would be produced locally, less transportation would be needed. In vitro coffee can be produced 365 days a year, in any country, and is not affected by weather or pests.
The process is similar to that used for microalgae or bacteria. Coffee cells are taken from a part of the plant (e.g. a leaf) and propagated in a nutrient medium. They are then incubated in a bioreactor to produce large amounts of biomass. The coffee fibers are then dried and roasted, ready to be brewed like regular coffee. Last September, VTT engineers produced their first cup of coffee that, according to Heiko Rischer, “tastes and smells like regular coffee.”
Coffee from bacteria and plant waste
Some startups plan to bypass the coffee plants and produce coffee-flavored molecules from microorganisms grown in bioreactors. Compound Foods, for example, promises to “produce a smoother coffee with more nuanced flavors better than anything you’ll find in the store.” It can also dose coffee with more or less caffeine, all with 10 times less CO2 emissions than traditional coffee. The start-up Atomo also launched its first molecular coffee last September, made from recycled ingredients such as sunflower seed husks or watermelon seeds that undergo a chemical process to mimic the taste and mouthfeel of coffee. A technique that guarantees zero deforestation, as the start-up claims, as it does not require any coffee beans.
All these initiatives are relatively convincing on paper, at least from an environmental point of view. Last June, scientists calculated that producing food in vitro using bacteria and electricity is 10 times more efficient than growing crops in the field. But the process is not viable for all food products and remains very expensive. We won’t see corn or strawberries coming out of test tubes any time soon.
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